Nelly Writes — Stories

Rhubarb

I have a life long love with rhubarb but I didn’t know it until a few years ago.

It was at my friend Susan’s home in London that for the first time I associated the word rhubarb with the feeling of longing.

About twenty years ago I was visiting her. One day she baked a pie and, when its aroma started spreading, I felt a very intense olfattive déjà-vu or, I should say, déjà-senti. I knew I had never seen the gigantic plant with green leaves and pink stalk she was growing in her tiny front yard before, but its intense smell was as familiar as if I had just finished eating some yesterday. Susan informed me that this vegetable grew like a weed and loved shady, damp, cool places. It could be used to make jellies, pies, fruit compotes. When I left to go back to Genoa, she cut some stalks and packed them for me to take home.

When I got home, I asked my father whether he had ever grown a rhubarb plant when I was a child. "Of course, in Belgium there was nothing but rhubarb, we had a big plant in our garden." Belgium is the place where I was born and now I was almost sure I had eaten many apple/rhubarb sauces in the first six years of my life, that is until we moved back to Italy. My mother confirmed the story.

I started wondering how could I have lived all those years without it and why. The answer, I soon found out, was simple. It is completely unknown in Italy. Only the root, probably imported from China, is appreciated. It is used to make a very bitter liqueur used as a digestive and an equally bitter candy. Both don’t have a trace of the flavor I like so much.

I was disappointed. But the next time I went to England or Sweden or other Northern European countries, I made sure to bring back a good supply of the pink stalks. Luckily they were durable and there were no laws against importing vegetables from one country to another.

I also bought the seeds and tried to grow it on the terrace on the eigth floor of my apartment near the port of Genoa. It didn’t like the sea breeze. I tried to grow it in Mombaruzzo, in the country, but the rain was not enough.

After one of these trips, I was back in my shop in Genoa, my Antica Sciamadda bakery where I made traditional Genoese food. I had brought back a big bundle of rhubarb and was consulting a cook book to find the best way to cook it.

Roberto, my helper, was observing me. He was used to see me experiment with strange, exotic ingredients (especially Chinese) and always made comments and jokes. This time he said: “I have loads of that plant near my house in the mountains. It grows all over the place, but nobody knows what to do with it”.

I was surprised. How strange that it grows there and nobody uses it. This is not very common in mountain communities where resources are scarce. Then I put two and two together. Roberto was born in France and his parents probably brought back some seeds and started a plantation which grew quite well in the cool damp climate of the Appenines. However, since it did not belong to the local tradition, its use was soon forgotten. Anyhow, Roberto promised that the next time he went up to his village he would bring back enough rhubarb to fill up my freezer.

And he did. For the next few months I made everything with rhubarb. Even my very traditional customers started ordering rhubarb pies. My friends initially enthusiastic grew first used then tired of my rhubarb-based concoctions.

Things changed after a while. My supply ended, some time later Roberto retired. My trips to Northern Europe became rarer.

Then one day I met Tim, my husband-to-be, and I made the decision to come and live in California where rhubarb grows without a problem. But that is another story....

Sometimes I wonder whether easy access to rhubarb had any part in my decision.

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"I come from a country where food is a central part of life. My passion and mission is to share my love of food and cooking with my students. Also to give them the inspiration and tools to create memorable meals and live meaningful experiences in the kitchen." - Nelly Capra