I was recently given a huge bag of rhubarb by one of my mum’s old colleagues. Given that my freezer is already crammed with beautiful, hot pink chunks of Yorkshire rhubarb awaiting the crumble or compote treatment, I couldn’t really justify stashing this away too. After making a gorgeous strawberry, rhubarb and coconut crumble pie (I know, right…doesn’t that just sound like the actual best thing ever known to man?), I turned my thoughts to the remainder, crammed into a huge bag sitting on my kitchen floor.
Home-grown rhubarb differs from the forced Champagne rhubarb that starts to appear in late winter, grown in the mysterious-sounding Rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire. The stalks are much thicker, tougher, and more fibrous; I find myself reaching for my largest, heaviest-duty kitchen knife to tackle them, rather than simply shredding away with a little paring knife. They are also much more sour, although they do tend to have a more pronounced rhubarb flavour than the sweeter, hot pink stuff. The stalks need cooking for longer to avoid them remaining crunchy and chewy. They also have a decidedly less pretty appearance, cooking down to a greenish-brown mush rather than vibrantly pink chunks.
However, it is this rhubarb that is absolutely perfect for jam making. It’s cheaper than the early forced kind (or, indeed, free, if you grow your own or have friends who do). Jam means long, hot cooking, allowing the stalks to soften thoroughly. Plus there’s plenty of sugar added to offset that sourness. For me, the ultimate jam involves combining the rhubarb with vanilla and cardamom. Vanilla lends a gorgeous sweet perfume that heightens the rhubarb flavour and makes it lusciously dessert-like, while cardamom lends its citrusy fragrance and gives an exotic note to the mixture. The combination of jam sugar and a little lemon juice means the jam sets very quickly; it can usually be made from start to finish in an hour.