Forced Fun? Not at the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival!

Feature article by Racheal Johnson, @cestrache

Wakefield’s definitely having a moment. With its landmark Hepworth gallery attracting 385,000 visitors since its opening last May, and the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park continuing to mount blockbuster shows, this upstart Yorkshire city is asserting itself as a cultural destination worth visiting.

But there’s another Wakefield export perhaps even more famous than Barbara Hepworth: Yorkshire forced rhubarb – the bright pink winter variety of that crumble staple, which was awarded Protected Designation of Origin status in 2010, putting it on an equal gastronomic footing with Parma ham and Champagne.

The epicentre of the ‘rhubarb triangle’, Wakefield once produced 90% of the world’s forced rhubarb. Now it celebrates this heritage with its annual Food, Drink and Rhubarb Festival. Capitalising on the Hepworth hype, this year’s sixth festival offers an extended programme and promises to be ‘one of the first major events in the UK’s foodie calender’.

The Rhubarb Fest is the kind of event that screams quintessential British quirkiness. However the main event in the city centre, the Deliciously Yorkshire market, is just a little bit generic, with disappointingly few of the traders fully embracing the rhubarb theme. None of that seemed to dampen the fun though: visitors swarmed around the famed Oldroyd’s rhubarb stall to buy bags of the pink stuff, while munching on delicacies such as Farmer Copley’s rhubarb and ginger pork pies and enjoying street performances by local musicians. A new addition to this year’s festival is the beer tent, featuring specially brewed rhubarb ales including Fernandes’ Rhubarb Bitter and Five Towns’ Roo-Barb. Typically for the Merrie City, the tent was packed with revellers warming up for Saturday’s Rhubarb Rocks at the Bull and Fairhouse pub.

By far the highlight of the festival, if you can get in, is a tour of the forcing sheds – not some kind of rhubarb gulag as the name suggests, but vast sheds where the crop is grown in complete darkness, giving it its distinctive crimson hue and tender stems. Frequented by celebrity chefs including Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver and James Martin, the Olyroyd’s tours were booked up well in advance but we managed to wangle a private tour from local farmer Jonathan Westwood, who supplies rhubarb to Waitrose and Morrisons among others. Built in the 1890s, the sheds are seriously atmospheric; the rhubarb grows tightly packed and Triffid-like, covering an area roughly the size of a football pitch. Legend has it you can even hear it creak as it grows, though sadly it didn’t oblige us today.

There was a particularly mean-spirited comment piece on the Rhubarb Festival in the Guardian. Penned by Nichi Hodgson – a former Wakefield resident, who apparently now earns her keep peddling poorly researched articles bashing her home city – it describes Wakefield as a ‘wilted Yorkshire town’ and bizarrely accuses the council of pursuing ‘rhubarb as a regenerative solution’. Along with The Hepworth and the Sculpture Park, the Rhubarb Festival is one of many great things happening in Wakefield right now, and it’s a shame Ms Hodgson can’t appreciate it as one of the many ways this Yorkshire town is reshaping its identity and celebrating what makes it special. Judging by the Twitter reaction to her ill-conceived comments she’s firmly in the minority: there’s a renewed sense of civic pride in Wakefield and like its famous culinary export, its future’s looking rosy.

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