Originating from sub-zero Siberia, the humble rhubarb loves the cold and the rain and is not what you’d usually expect to find on supermarket shelves across the Emirates.
Now, however, sticks of the vegetable are being shipped 7,500 kilometres from an area known as the Rhubarb Triangle in Wakefield, in the north of England, to meet a growing appetite in the UAE.
Waitrose and Spinneys in Abu Dhabi and Dubai have ordered thousands of bunches of the delicacy, commonly used in traditional British desserts. These come courtesy of Annabel Makin-Jones, who launched Annabel’s Deliciously British from her zero-waste family farm in Yorkshire two years ago.
Grown in customised long, dark barns, the vegetable is cut by candlelight and is also known as "forced" rhubarb.
Makin-Jones is no stranger to the UAE. The high demand for strawberries from her farm led to stockists doubling their orders for 2021, to half a million punnets. In fact, Dubai is the brand's biggest buyer of the fruit.
Hot on the heels of this boom, the farm started receiving requests for its rhubarb. "We have doubled our sales with Dubai retailers this year. There will be 68 Spinneys in the UAE that are stocking our products," Makin-Jones tells The National.
“One of the reason our strawberries worked well is the packaging; it’s quintessentially British and looks like a little gift. People were visiting friends and taking these strawberries boxes as treats. We handpick them with care and love.
"And all our rhubarb is the same; it is all hand-picked," she says. "It cannot be picked by a machine. People don't understand how things come from the farm to the plate, and we want to bring a bit of nostalgia back."
Rhubarb is harvested from January to April and the reason it's cut by candlelight is to ensure the delicate pink stems don’t turn green through photosynthesis. The cuttings are grown outside in the fields and once matured they are brought inside for the forcing process.
“Rhubarb is something that is dying out; there used to be 200 growers here and now there are nine,” says Makin-Jones. “My grandfather grew rhubarb and I have grown up at the farm with it. This area has been renowned for it for generations."
While the ingredient is traditionally used in desserts, from crumbles to rhubarb and custard tarts, it has reinvented itself as a superfood. Low in calories but high in fibre and vitamins, the vegetable has become sought after for healthy diets. Research by British scientists in 2010 also revealed it has anti-cancerous chemicals.
Rhubarb dishes in the UAE
While rhubarb might not yet be a frequent sight on supermarket shelves in the UAE, the country's chefs are familiar with it. French restaurant LPM on Abu Dhabi's Al Maryah Island was one of the first to recognise its benefits and created an entire set menu dedicated to it. The list included a scallop starter with cauliflower and capers, followed by grilled pigeon and a creamy panna cotta, all served with rhubarb.
Last year, chef Alex Dilling of Michelin-starred restaurant The Greenhouse in London, teamed up with Ossiano in Dubai to create foie gras torchon with rhubarb.
Meanwhile, Meydan Hotel will serve a strawberry rhubarb crumble and raspberry sorbet, and Cafe Society gratin rhubarb oysters as part of their Valentine's Day menus. Hillhouse Brasserie does a mean rhubarb doughnut; Brunch and Cake serves rhubarb and cherry granola with mango and fresh berries; and folly by Nick & Scott has a delicious rhubarb custard on its dessert menu.
In Abu Dhabi, head to Barfly by Buddha Bar for the refreshing Fashion Fresh mocktail made from beetroot juice, apple juice, lemon juice mango puree and rhubarb jam, or to The Cove for a rhubarb apple pie.