Hannah Glasse’s 1760 Recipe for ‘Rhubarb Tarts’

“Take stalks of English rhubarb, that grow in the gardens, peel and cut it the size of goosberries; sweeten it, and make them as you do goosberry tarts: how to make the crust you have in the Art of Cookery.

These tarts may be thought very odd, but they are very fine ones and have a pretty flavour; the leaves of rhubarb are a fine thing to eat for a pain in the stomach, the roots for tincture, and the stalks for tarts.”

Hannah Glasse, The Compleat Confectioner (1760)

Rhubarb season is here again! It’s something I look forward to immensely every year. On our allotment plot, spring rhubarb is one of the first true harvests – as opposed to random pickings of surviving kale leaves or early chives – as these perennial plant reawaken from their winter slumbers and send their huge, crinkled leaves and red-pink stems shooting up towards the sun.

Rhubarb might not be to everyone’s taste, and it isn’t technically a fruit, it’s very clearly a vegetable, put as it’s generally sweetened and served in a crumble, or stewed, with custard or ice-cream, and tends to be grown as an essential part of any fruit plot, I definitely feel justified in covering it again here.

Speaking of covering it again, I’d like to take this opportunity to re-visit a post I put out last year, in which I mused on the sparse culinary uses to which rhubarb was put in previous centuries.

In that post, on John Smith’s recipe for Gooseberry, Apple or Rhubarb Cream – which of course I didn’t get around to making last year, so really must have a go at trying this time around – I followed the generally accepted opinion that rhubarb was used as medicine rather than food prior to Joseph Myatt’s attempts to popularise it in the early nineteenth century.

However, new evidence has come to light that requires a correction of that earlier article. Following one of those rather lovely Twitter/X conversations that happen from time to time if you Tweet in the right circles, I ended up swapping rhubarb recipe notes with Karen Meadows (British Garden History, @britgardhistory) and Paul Couchman (The Regency Cook, @theregencycook).

You can read the full thread here, but the long and short of it is that Paul tipped us off that a chap called Peter Collinson recommended rhubarb tarts in a letter to John Bartram in 1739, and that Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell included a recipe in her 1806 cookbook A New System of Domestic Cookery; in the New Edition of 1808 the recipe for ‘rhubarb tart’ is on p. 160.

That sent me off into my collection of downloaded historical cookbooks, on the off-chance that an even earlier recipe might be lurking somewhere. I had no luck with Mary Eales’ The Compleat Confectioner (1742) or Edward Lambert’s The Art of Confectionary (1761), but a year earlier than the latter, I did find Hannah Glasse’s recipe, via her own The Compleat Confectioner (1760).

Having said that, it’s not much of an actual recipe. Instead, Mrs Glasse cunningly refers you to her other book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy – which you’d naturally already have a copy of on your shelf, no? – for the details of how to make a tart crust, and then leaves you to it, to chop the rhubarb into gooseberry-sized chunks, and then make your tarts “as you do goosberry tarts”. The recipe for which rather unhelpfully doesn’t turn out to be the previous or next one in the book.

One point of interest though is the opening instruction, to “Take stalks of English rhubarb, that grow in the gardens”. Does this suggest that rhubarb was a more commonly-grown garden plant than has hitherto been assumed, at least by your humble scribe? Or does “the gardens” refer to a more specialised physick garden?

Mrs Glasse’s comment that “These tarts may be thought very odd, but they are very fine ones and have a pretty flavour” certainly fits with the generally accepted notion that rhubarb was considered more medicinal than edible at the time, as does the rest of the second paragraph, in which various parts of the plants are suggested as remedies for various maladies. Likewise the two other uses for rhubarb mentioned in The Compleat Confectioner: as ingredients in both ‘Bitter Wine’ (p. 206) and the utterly bizarre-sounding herbal cornucopia that is ‘Lady Hewet’s Water’ (p. 180).

I’m not sure Mrs Glasse’s suggestion that “the leaves of rhubarb are a fine thing to eat for a pain in the stomach” is entirely sound, though. They’d probably give you a pain in the stomach if you ate enough of them for their toxicity to kick in. But perhaps they might alleviate trapped wind or excess stomach acid along the way? I have no idea, but I know enough to strongly recommend you don’t try rhubarb leaves as a remedy for anything without first seeking the advice of a qualified medical professional.

In any case, this “recipe” definitely pushes back the date of the earliest published rhubarb recipe that I know of to 1760. Collinson’s letter of 1739 was earlier, but it was originally written in a private correspondence rather than a published work, so wouldn’t have been available to the wider public.

If you know of an earlier recipe for rhubarb – any scholars of medieval manuscripts out there? – then do please let me know, either by email, or via the comments, below. Likewise, if rhubarb tarts are a staple of your kitchen, or you feel inspired to give them a go, please do leave a comment to let me know how you get on.

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