“Gooseberries, apples, or rhubarb peeled and cut, two pints. Stew the fruit with a very little water, and pulp it through a sieve or colander ; add about half a pound of sugar. Beat the yolks of two eggs with a quart of milk ; heat it gently over a slow fire, till it begins to simmer ; then stir it by degrees to the fruit, and serve it when cold. Cream, or milk and cream, may be used without eggs, and a little cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon peel, or other seasoning may be simmered with the milk when preferred. Some use a little perry or cider in stewing the fruit.”
John Smith, The Principles and Practice of Vegetarian Cookery (1860)
You’d have to be some sort of fool not to recognise the general gist of this nineteenth century recipe. The Gooseberry Fool, or similar mixtures of fruit with cream, almond milk or even butter – as per one mid-16th century recipe for ‘Applemoyse‘ – has a good, long heritage. I posted Esther Copley’s slightly earlier (1838) recipe for ‘gooseberry or apple fool‘ not so long ago. John Smith’s version is significant though, because it features an ingredient that, until the middle of the nineteenth century, was rarely seen in the cookery section of receipt (or recipe) books: rhubarb.
The root of the rhubarb, dried and powdered, was used as a purgative for centuries, long before anyone really thought of consuming the stewed stems for sustenance and/or pleasure. In his rather excellent exploration of fruit and veg history and heritage, Forgotten Fruits (2008), Christopher Stocks explains that the modern popularity of rhubarb is down to the tireless work of one Joseph Myatt of Deptford, who grew and raised new varieties of rhubarb – including ‘Myatt’s Victoria’, better known today simply as ‘Victoria’ – and then spent a great deal of time and effort trying to persuade the great British public to actually eat it1It must have caught on eventually though, because a few weeks ago I helped to plant out a National Collection of rhubarb during one of my weekly volunteering sessions at RHS Bridgewater. Do go take a look when it’s in full growth later in the year. It should be quite the sight to see..
Christopher also says that the earliest recipe for cooked rhubarb could be found in John Farley’s The London Art of Cookery (1783). Alas, I’m sorry to say that I downloaded a copy of said volume and then searched and scoured the text for any mention of rhubarb… but all in vain. Perhaps it was a later edition that included the recipe? Or perhaps it was just too elusive for my speed-scanning and Google Books’ search algorithm.
Instead, we have John Smith’s recipe for a ‘rhubarb cream’ (‘rhubarb fool’ by any other name) which is almost a rhubarb custard in its suggested form of milk and egg yolks blended with stewed and sieved fruit, although cream-based alternatives are detailed as well. It all sounds rather delicious and I can’t help wondering why on earth I’ve net yet tried to make anything like this myself? I really must give it a go once the first rhubarb of the season is ready for picking.
How about you? Do you regularly make a fool (by/of) yourself in the kitchen? Do you have a preferred ratio of cream to milk to egg yolk to fruit? Please do let me know if so, either via the comments below, or by sending me an email with your notes and, if possible, a few photos.
- 1It must have caught on eventually though, because a few weeks ago I helped to plant out a National Collection of rhubarb during one of my weekly volunteering sessions at RHS Bridgewater. Do go take a look when it’s in full growth later in the year. It should be quite the sight to see.