April 1971 – I drive the mini traveller back to Kettering for free food from my grandmother’s garden. She forces pink rhubarb under old, metal buckets, with holes punched in the top to let in light. These tender delicacies are only for the family but now she’s happy to let me pick from the huge clumps which thrive on her compost heap. I cut armfuls with leaves and all.
Grandma is worried.
‘Jenny- rhubarb leaves are poisonous. You can die if you eat them.’
She tells me about someone who ate the cooked leaves as a vegetable and was so ill with stomach pains that they had to go to hospital. Grandma boils rhubarb leaves in water to clean her saucepans. If they strip your stomach in the same way that they bring a shine to her aluminium pans, that could be painful.
‘Don’t let those children have the leaves. They could get into all sorts of trouble.’
‘Don’t worry grandma – I’ll tell them all about it.’
Grandma knows about London children. During the war, evacuees from the east end were billeted with her, and they thrived on her cooking and helped with her garden. She’s proud of her certificate from Queen Elizabeth 11 thanking her for this service which she keeps in a faded envelope with its official stamp.
Back at my London school, I plonk my huge pile of rhubarb with its massive leaves on my demonstration table.
‘OK class – first to warn you – these leaves are poisonous. They can give you stomach ache, make you feel sick and some people have even died from eating them.’
The death story may not be true but it’s a good start to the lesson. I have their attention. They are curious.
‘How do they poison you, miss?’ Bert isn’t usually concentrating this early in the day.
‘The leaves contain oxalic acid which is toxic. That means they are dangerous. ’
‘But miss, why can you eat the stalk and not the leaf – why does the poison just go into the leaf?’
There is no Google search for the answer, and Bert has a clever point. I’ll have to ask the biology teacher later.
‘Miss, what do you have to do to poison someone?’
Ah ha! I can see where this diversion is leading. Bert’s after my rhubarb leaf mountain. We’ve just had the school acid attack when someone sat a boy in concentrated sulphuric acid. It burnt the backside off his school trousers and he had to go to Whipps Cross hospital to have his bottom checked. Now it could be the rhubarb poisoning scandal. And it’s all my fault.
‘Bert, I’m taking these leaves home, so let’s get on. Today we’re going to make Rhubarb fool.’
‘First we wash and chop the stems and cook them in a saucepan with a little water and the lid on until they are soft.’
I’ve learnt to give clear cooking instructions after many disasters. Last week I told Robert to boil his potatoes and he stuffed them unpeeled into the electric kettle with some water and clicked it on. We had the devil of a job poking out the mushy bits. I pass round a dish of grandma’s soft, pink cooked rhubarb so they can see.
Now for the custard. There is a magic moment when you mix custard powder with gritty sugar and milk. Suddenly as you stir in the milk, the pale peach powder turns to bright yellow – a chemical mystery which probably holds its truth in tartrazine.
‘To make the custard, pour in the hot milk into this yellow mixture and stir until it thickens.’
A delicious, golden, glossy custard magically emerges in the bowl.
‘Add your cooked rhubarb, some red colouring then whisk an egg white and carefully fold it in. Spoon into the glass dish and top with a glacé cherry.’
I haven’t told them that the cochineal red colouring is made from crushed beetles. Imagine the screams.
‘She’s making us eat beetles! Mad teacher from the north! We ain’t eating beetles!’
Tiny bottles of artificial colours and flavouring line my storeroom shelves to prop up our culinary skills and lack of tasty ingredients. Red for rhubarb and strawberry tart glaze. Green for anything made with gooseberries or cooked apples.
Vanilla essence goes in sponge cakes, drops of almond essence mix with the semolina that we use instead of almonds for Bakewell Tart and the ultimate sin, rum essence, is dribbled onto rum babas or into chocolate truffles. How I long to taste the real thing.
They chop, cook and stir and thicken and my table soon has a display of glass dishes in various shades from pink to plum. Each on a saucer with a frilly d’oyley. Always a bloody d’oyley!
The lesson is over. And we have all made a potion of rhubarb with enhanced colours and flavours which richly deserves the name fool.