What with holiday reading, holiday book hunting, some very exciting book donations, and a sneaky amazon purchase, a lot of very good bookish things have come my way recently, with the end result that everything is piling up and I’m feeling a touch guilty about it. However I’ve dug out a notebook and made some lists which is giving an illusion of orgonisation, so now all I need to do is stop procrastinating and start writing this stuff up.
Second on my list, but bumped up to first place because of pure enthusiasm is ‘Rhubarbaria’ by Mary Prior published by the really wonderful Prospect Books. Mary Prior has a Shetland connection (including a daughter who’s a very talented cook, which all adds to the pedigree of this book) and I’d heard that this collection was in the pipeline a couple of years ago but nothing more since, and then on this last trip back I actually saw (and bought) a copy. Seeing it was published by Prospect books I looked them up and have been wondering how on earth I could have been basically unaware of such a treasure trove for so long.
Prospect publish cookery, food history and ethnology of food titles (my mouth is actually watering as I type this) and here are just a few: ‘Dinner for Dickens The Culinary History of Mrs Charles Dickens’s Menu Books’, ‘The Elder In History, Myth and Cookery’, ‘Outlaw Cook’ – no idea, but it sounds exciting – ‘Sugar Plums and Sherbet The Prehistory of Sweets’, ‘Rhubarbaria’ of course, and who couldn’t want ‘The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelm Digby, KT., Opened (1669)’ on their shelf? This is a very small cross section of what’s on offer, please, please go and have a look for yourself.
'Rhubarbaria' is a slim and very reasonably priced volume (to my delight all the headings inside are in a bright rhubarb pink). I have actually read it cover to cover, and caught the Scottish one doing the same thing. He was intrigued – and slightly repulsed - by recipes for Puffin and rhubarb, included for the sake of completism rather than for trying I think.
I learnt that rhubarb was first known for its medicinal qualities, only becoming a recognised food stuff in the last few hundred years. The leaves (poisonous) used to be eaten like spinach, which is perhaps why it took a while for rhubarb to become popular. I read about the heyday of the Yorkshire rhubarb triangle, complete with the rhubarb express which transported the sticks to London. The last express left in 1966 but it’s an image which has really fixed itself in my imagination. The promise of the introductory essay is more than fulfilled in the recipes which are presented with learning, humour, and anecdote – this is a book with a winning personality. Incidentally the recipes I can’t wait to try are for rhubarb jelly; I’ve never eaten it, but have an enticing image in my mind’s eye of something with a jewel like colour and a seductive wobble.