Home-Grown English Exotica
A history of growing rhubarb, liquorice and saffron in England.
You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that England doesn’t have the climate to grow exotic foods. But you’d be mistaken. The quintessentially English apple, for instance, is actually native to central Asia, the cucumber, our favoured sandwich filling, is from the foothills of the Himalayas, and even the humble turnip hails from the eastern Mediterranean.
Today we explore three foreign plants grown on English soil - rhubarb, liquorice and saffron - and the history behind them.
Rhubarb crumbles, pies, and jams seem almost as British as Mary Berry doing just about anything, yet the plant traces its lineage back to central Asia, where it's been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times.
Unlike today, rhubarb was grown for its roots, rather than its stalks (which were too sour without the addition of sweeteners). The ancient Chinese dried the roots and used them for their purgative properties, a practice that was also adopted by the ancient Greeks. In medieval Europe, dried rhubarb root was used for all manner of ailments, including jaundice, fevers, and even syphilis. Similarly, in the medieval Muslim world, it was used to strengthen the stomach, relieve vomiting, quench thirst, and, helpfully, soften the faeces. There were a number of different species of rhubarb that were used, but by the 14th century it became recognised that the best and most potent came from the Far East. Demand was so high that one historian referred to it as an ‘obsession’ and another a ‘phenomenon’.
In England, the East India Company was the main importer of rhubarb root. Between 1704 and 1707, imports increased more than ten times, and by the 1760s it had become a major money-maker for the Company, who exported it to the rest of Europe and the New World.
There were, of course, many attempts to grow it on English soil, fueled by the high costs and declining qualities from abroad. One unsuccessful attempt used the wrong species of rhubarb, but after a bit of experimenting it became clear that with the addition of plenty of sugar, the stems could be eaten as a delicious treat. It wouldn’t become a popular ingredient until the mid-19th century, however, coinciding with the cheaper price of sugar.
It was also in the 19th century that forced rhubarb was discovered. According to one tale, some men were working in Chelsea Physic Garden, London in 1815 and threw some rubble on an empty flower bed, which was, in fact, a rhubarb patch. Removing the rubble in Spring, it was revealed that the rhubarb had grown and the stems were longer, more tender, and tastier than their conventionally-grown cousins.
Forced rhubarb took off in the 1880s, particularly between Wakefield, Leeds, and Bradford, an area which came to be known as the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’. By the end of the century, the Rhubarb Triangle was sending thousands of tonnes to London and Paris, and by the 1930s it produced around 90% of the world’s winter forced rhubarb.
Unfortunately, after WWII, cheap imports of exotic fruits and rising labour costs almost entirely wiped out domestic production. At its peak, the Triangle covered 30 square miles of land - today it’s closer to nine. But the future looks bright, with an annual Rhubarb Festival in Wakefield, alongside Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb being awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the EU.
Very British liquorice
Liquorice may not seem like a particularly exotic food to us today, but its original home may lie as far afield as China, Mongolia, or India. The root was known to the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus, Scythians, and Sumerians, who used liquorice in their medicines as a rejuvenator and for quenching thirst. The word comes from the Greek glycyrrhiza, meaning ‘sweet root’, a reference to the fact it’s around fifty times sweeter than cane sugar.
We’re not exactly sure when liquorice was first grown on English soil, as there’s no documented evidence before 1579. Some believe it was the crusaders returning from Asia Minor who brought the sweet root back with them, after which medieval monks began growing them in their monastery gardens. According to another legend, a Tudor school master from Pontefract, Yorkshire, came across some liquorice sticks that had washed up after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. He used these sticks to beat his pupils, who in turn clenched them between their teeth, revealing the sweet flavour within.
When, where, or how exactly liquorice came to England is unknown, but from the late 16th century onwards the town of Pontefract in West Yorkshire became a centre for its cultivation. The plant flourished in very few places in England, but the deep, rich soil of Pontefract was perfect - though it still needed a lot of care to survive in the colder climate.
Liquorice was used mainly for medicine in England until the 19th century. The famous Pontefract (or Pomfret) cake, a small, circular type of sweet, was developed in 1760 for use as a medicinal pastille but by the 1890s liquorice had become more associated with confectionary.
Demand outstripped supply, and foreign liquorice began to be imported from Turkey. Sugar also became cheaper meaning the sweetness liquorice offered was less desired. And so, by 1966, the last commercial liquorice crop in Pontefract was harvested. Don’t despair though, because liquorice is once again being grown in England by a small producer in Pontefract.
The of source of saffron
Saffron, the orange-red stigma of the crocus flower, is the world’s most expensive spice and has a history that dates back thousands of years. Originally from Western Asia, it has been cultivated there, as well as in southern Europe, North Africa, India, and China, for thousands of years for its use in food, medicine, and dyes.
The Arabs were growing the crocus flowers in Spain by at least 960 AD, but it wasn’t until the Crusaders returned from Asia Minor in the 13th century that its cultivation spread across Europe to Italy, France, and Germany. Throughout the medieval period, saffron was a much sought after and highly prized spice, partly because saffron-coloured food was thought to be suffused with the power of the sun.
While we might associate its cultivation with the sunnier climes of Spain, Italy, and Greece, there was a time when saffron was grown right here in England. The flower is said to have been introduced by a pilgrim in the 14th century, who had hidden a plant in his hollow staff and brought it home. Whether or not this tale is true (it's probably not), it’s likely that after the Black Death (1348-1350), when around a quarter of England’s population perished, land became more available and gave people the opportunity and space to cultivate the lucrative crop.
By the 16th century, the spice was grown widely in Essex and Cambridge, and the town of Walden (later renamed Saffron Walden) became the centre of the English saffron trade. The climate here was so suited to growing the crocus that at times production in Essex rivalled that of Spain and France.
By the 1880s, however, almost all commercial saffron production in England had ceased due to competing supplies from Iran, which could produce it more cheaply.
If you’re curious about how English saffron tastes, however, a small producer has been cultivating it back on Essex and Devon soil since 2004.