Rhubarb, the Wakefield delicacy driving growth
22 Feb 2019
With the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival getting underway today, LEP Chair Roger Marsh OBE, has been contemplating Leeds City Region’s contrasting range of industries, from hi-tech to highly traditional.
West Yorkshire’s Rhubarb Triangle, an area that has recognised European Commission like Champagne, Parma Ham and Stilton cheese. This weekend Wakefield is hosting its annual festival to celebrate the crop.
Known locally as ‘tusky’, the rhubarb is forced in sheds located in a 9 square-mile (23 km2) triangle between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell. At its peak, West Yorkshire produced 90% of the world's winter forced rhubarb and covered an area of about 30 square-miles (78 km2).
Roger Marsh said: “West Yorkshire and the Leeds City region always has the capacity to surprise.
“It’s a digital powerhouse with a £69.6 billion economy that is transforming businesses through FinTech, telecoms, health and education technologies and cyber security, and at the same time it is the home to a European Commission-designated area where in lightless sheds, rhubarb, or tusky, is being forced at such a speed you can literally hear it grow.”
Rhubarb has a wide range of uses from sweet to savoury and is also part of the UK’s huge gin renaissance. Harrogate distillers Slingsby’s decision to infuse their London Dry Gin with Yorkshire Triangle rhubarb has proved a huge success.
Slingsby’s Marketing Director Clare Gibson says: “This year we have seen a huge surge in rhubarb gins come into the market to enjoy in the boom of the ‘pink gin’. Slingbsy’s very early entry into the rhubarb gin market has secured us another year of phenomenal growth – almost 600% over the past year”
Made within the Rhubarb Triangle itself, the liqueur Rhucello resulted from a tour of a Dutch distillery during a stag party in February 2014. When the party, hailing largely from Wakefield, noticed rhubarb was not among the 38 flavours their hosts proudly proclaimed an idea was born.
Company director and Wakefield resident of 40 years, Dave Burnley says: “We always have a really good time at Rhubarb Festival, which we first attended in 2015. Since then we have more than doubled our sales at the festival, with 2017 and 2018 being particularly successful.
“It has become one of the biggest events of the year for us, and if the forecast for this weekend holds, Saturday is likely to be the biggest footfall anyone has ever seen in Wakefield.”
Later in the year, West Yorkshire will be celebrating another local culinary curiosity when the nearby town of Pontefract holds its annual festival of liquorice, a plant which due to its geographical origins was known locally as ‘spanish’.
Liquorice has been associated with Pontefract since 1500 when they were first mentioned together and by 1750 the town boasted 47 liquorice farmers. At one point there were 13 factories turning out liquorice products and confectionary giant Haribo continues to make Pontefract Cakes, also known as Pomfret cakes and Pomfrey cakes, from ‘spanish’ in the town. The company’s plants in Pontefract and nearby Castleford employ 700 people.
Marsh adds: “We have a unique and influential ecosystem that has seen our region become the UK’s first health innovation hub that incudes opportunities in diagnostic and personalised medicine, med-tech and regenerative medicine. And a factory in Pontefract making sweets deriving from a plant, liquorice or spanish, that was probably brought back from the Crusades for medicinal purposes.
“We really do have the best of all worlds and the tastiest of futures.”