A few weeks ago, I got up on a cold, grey, quintessentially northern morning and made my way to the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival. Before I moved to York, I always looked forward to late-winter trips to my parents' house in the Dales, because they would furnish me with plentiful heaps of gorgeous, hot pink Yorkshire rhubarb from the grocer's around the corner. Now that I'm living so close to that romantic and mysterious-sounding thing, the 'Rhubarb Triangle', it seemed rude not to get on a train and visit the heart of rhubarb country for a celebration of all things to do with this beautiful ingredient.
Any rhubarb connoisseur can tell you that Yorkshire rhubarb is the finest in the world - why they bother importing stuff from Holland later in the year is a mystery to me, as it's never the same. Early season rhubarb is a sight for sore, winter-jaded eyes and souls. Unless you're the world's worst scrooge, I fail to see how it couldn't cheer you up.
An entire festival devoted to rhubarb, given my love for the stuff, was a ridiculously exciting prospect. If you're wondering how you can build an entire festival around a single, generally quite underrated, ingredient, you'd have been surprised at the rather substantial scale of the Wakefield festival. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be more of a general food festival with most stalls offering something rhubarb-themed, but there was still a prominent vein of rhubarb mania running throughout the whole thing.
There were cheese stalls offering Wensleydale cheeses with rhubarb pieces in. Chocolatiers proffering bars of rhubarb crumble chocolate. Cafés offering rhubarb and white chocolate pots in addition to their usual cakes. Butchers with pork and rhubarb sausages, or rhubarb pork pies. Rhubarb and custard fudge. Myriad manifestations of rhubarb jam and chutney, and an excellent rhubarb and orange marmalade. There were delicious rhubarb cordials, cakes and tarts.
There were also, of course, stalls selling gigantic bundles of hot-pink Wakefield rhubarb. I don't think I've ever seen so much in one place. Predictably, I gathered three huge bunches to hoard in the freezer. I also ended up with my very own rhubarb plant, which sent up a little pink, green-tipped stalk about a week ago and rendered me unfeasibly excited (I normally kill pretty much every vegetation I touch). I can't wait to harvest it next year and feast on my own home-grown rhubarb.
One of the highlights, though, was a small sip of rhubarb vodka that passed my lips just close enough to 12pm for it to be legitimate and not reminiscent of desperate alcoholism. Given that the day was freezing, the fiery warmth as it slid down my oesophagus would probably have been welcome no matter how it tasted. But on top of that, oh, was it delicious.
Sometimes it's hard to pick up on the distinct and unique flavour of rhubarb. We so often mask it with sugar and cover it in buttery crumble, nuts or custard that its qualities tend to get a little lost. This vodka was wonderful in that the pure rhubarb flavour came through - that delicious fragrance, a slight hint of vanilla sweetness. It was like delicious rhubarb nectar, and dangerously drinkable.
Having braved the realm of homemade infused alcohols a couple of years ago with my very successful (and equally dangerously drinkable) sloe gin, I decided to have a go at making rhubarb vodka at home. Any excuse to buy more rhubarb is a worthy one, in my world. I'm trying to think of the last time I didn't spend a trip to town with at least half a kilo of pink stalks sticking out of my rucksack, and I'm not sure I can. Soon they will start calling me 'rhubarb girl' and try to pour custard on me.
There don't seem to be many definitive recipes for rhubarb vodka online. Some say to only use a couple of sticks of rhubarb, others (most) suggest more, around half a kilo. They generally agree on a 2:1 rhubarb:sugar ratio. Some add orange peel, lemon peel, cloves, cinnamon sticks or ginger. I thought about adding a vanilla pod, because I reckon that could be insanely delicious.
However, for my first attempt, I wanted to keep it pure and simple - just rhubarb, vodka and sugar. If I feel it needs improving, I might try a rhubarb/ginger or a rhubarb/vanilla version next year. I didn't want to complicate things with spices, as I think they would be too intrusive. Cinnamon and rhubarb don't work that well together, in my book - not as well as ginger or vanilla, anyway.
So here is one of the simplest recipes you'll find on this blog. It's one of those simple recipes whose text belies quite how enjoyable and rewarding it is. I spent a lovely relaxed Sunday morning chopping beautiful candy-coloured rhubarb into chunks, then smashing it satisfyingly in a pestle and mortar. I loved the crunch and crush of the pieces as they shattered into pink and white shards, the way they started to release juice that then combined with the sugar in the jar to turn frosty and almost sparkly.
The crushed rhubarb went into a big Kilner jar, and I poured over the sugar, shaking the jar to let the sugar permeate into all those lovely cracks in the rhubarb pieces, turning the whole lot into a garishly pink mass reminiscent of a small girl's bedroom decor. Crushing the rhubarb first means there's more surface area for its aroma and flavour to infuse the vodka, and it also helps the sugar combine with the fruit. Plus, it looks so pretty.
Next, I poured an entire bottle of vodka into the jar. I haven't bought a bottle of vodka ever in my life, I don't think. In fact, I don't think I've drunk vodka since I was actually legally able to. I was almost embarrassed at its presence on the conveyor belt at Morrisons, especially as I was buying very little else so it looked like I was on a strange diet of strong spirits, mints and dried cranberries.
But there was a certain satisfaction in tipping that entire vessel of clear, potent liquid over my beautiful frosty sugared rhubarb mass, knowing that in a few weeks time the whole lot will have coalesced into stunning, hot-pink, sugary, warming deliciousness.
If you decide to make this, try and make it using early season pink rhubarb, rather than the thicker, woodier, greener stuff from later in the year. You'll need to be patient, as it needs to mature for a few weeks - at least three months, preferably. However, if it tastes anything like the stuff I tried at the festival, you're in for a treat. Try it served in small shots after dinner, or combine with cranberry juice and a squeeze of lime for a sort-of rhubarb cosmopolitan. It's also, reportedly, very good in a bellini, topped up with prosecco, though perhaps only if you can handle the inevitable hangover. My alcohol expertise ends there, really, as I don't drink much, but I'm sure more experienced mixologists will find exciting uses for this.
Meanwhile, it's still sitting on my kitchen table. I know I need to move it to a cool, dark place, but the sight of it is just so cheering and uplifting that I can barely bring myself to part with it.
Rhubarb vodka (makes 750ml):
- 500g rhubarb
- 250g granulated sugar
- 750ml vodka
Cut the rhubarb into 2cm pieces. In batches, crush it roughly in a pestle and mortar, and place in a large, clean airtight jar (I used a 2-litre Kilner jar). Add the sugar and shake to combine. Pour over the vodka, clip on the lid, then shake well.
Leave in a cool, dark place, shaking the jar daily, for at least 3 weeks. After 3 weeks you can shake the jar less frequently, about once a week.
When ready to drink (patience is a virtue - it will be at its best after at least 3 months), strain the vodka through a fine sieve or muslin, then bottle.