A family business
Rhubarb grower Robert Tomlinson of B Tomlinson and son, took over from his dad about 20 years ago, and started to build the business up, right in the heart of Yorkshire’s rhubarb triangle.
They’ve been growing rhubarb and other vegetables on the farm in Pudsey for about 140 years, which started with Robert’s great grandad Robert, his grandad Bernard, his Dad David, before Robert took over.
The business is all about quality and looking after the land, doing things in the traditional way to keep it alive.
Rhubarb is grown almost the same way it was when Rob’s great grandfather started, and the family are strong believers that they are there to look after the land until the next person takes over, after all the land has been there much longer than we they have and will be there much longer if its looked after.
Robert grows his crop in a rotation and now puts clover and phacelia as a cover crop to put nutrients back into the soil.
From York to New York!
Most of the rhubarb produced goes to catering companies, some to restaurants and Michelin star chefs throughout the country – it even goes to Paris, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, and unbelievably New York (USA).
Robert still finds it amazing that his crop travels all the way from the tiny place of Pudsey in Yorkshire across the pond.
Many years ago, through the wars, the 50’s and 60’s, the business had 12 forcing sheds producing 70-80 tons of rhubarb each year, then in the 80’s it went out of fashion and became uneconomical to grow due to the time and labour requirements.
Most of the 200 growers in Yorkshire gave in and the sheds fell into disrepair, as did most of theirs.
Robert’s Dad cut down to 1 shed but never gave up, just to keep the tradition going. In the 2000’s it started to become more popular again and it was down to the chefs on tv that had really promoted it over the last few years to keep the demand alive.
So Robert started to build production back up, and he now have 5 forcing sheds. He also grew cabbages and cauliflowers and other brassicas, but the last couple of years has seen a decline in staff, so unfortunately they’ve cut the brassicas right back as there is only him and his wife as the labour, so they’re concentrating on the rhubarb growing.
These days Robert grows varieties, which he would class as new varieties as they’ve only had them 50 years compared to the old varieties which they’ve been growing for over 140 years.
These are called Stockbridge Harbinger and Stockbridge Arrow, these are red in colour and better flavour than the ancient ones which are pale pink, which are more difficult as they are less vigorous and produce less rhubarb but the quality is what is required over quantity!
Looking into the crystal ball, Robert thinks the future is looking ok with the rhubarb business, as long as it doesn’t go out of fashion again.
There are so few growers now that there is never enough to go around, especially as the forced rhubarb growing technique is very difficult to modernise.
Robert comments that it’s almost impossible really as staff will always be a major factor as it’s a labour intensive crop. Robert’s children are interested and do help out, but there are only 10 growers left and he is one of the youngest.
Robert foresees in another few years there will be even less growers so he is trying to build his business to future proof and maintain the tradition.
Let’s come into the kitchen
When I asked Robert what he likes to do with rhubarb he answered ‘I still love a rhubarb crumble with loads of custard but it’s used in starters mains and desserts these days, even juices and sodas’
So in homage to the rhubarb growers of the Yorkshire triangle, let’s raise a glass of rhubarb gin.
Here is my recipe, which you can also find in the new e-cookery book No Fuss Meals for Busy Parents
You will need:
3-4 stalks of rhubarb
500g caster sugar
1 litre bottle of cheap plain gin
(Nothing fancy as you’ll be changing the flavour. I use Aldi’s own brand)
Mix the sugar and rhubarb together and leave overnight in a sealed jar to allow the sugar to draw out the juice.
The next day add the gin and seal in an air tight vessel.
Shake daily to ensure the sugar dissolves.
After 4 weeks, your rhubarb gin should be ready.
Strain through a muslin cloth and enjoy your drink with some tonic water)
For more information on Robert’s rhubarb, you can follow Rob on Twitter or Instagram @RhubarbRob