This image, taken from William Marshall Craig’s Itinerant Traders of London (1804), shows a man in Turkish garb, selling rhubarb in Russell Square.
His wares are carried in a wooden box which hangs from his shoulders, and in his hand he carries a small pair of scales.
His trade was in rheum palmatum – Chinese or Turkey rhubarb. This rhubarb was not destined for the dining table, as in the spring fruit recipes we looked at yesterday, but rather sold dried as a medicine. Well known for its purgative and antibacterial qualities, dried rhubarb root was commonly used as a laxative.
Rheum rhabarbarum (edible rhubarb) started to be used in English kitchens from the end of the 18th century, when sugar became more affordable.
In 1815, the accidental discovery of the ‘forcing’ technique at Chelsea Physic Garden led to another boost in its popularity. ‘Forcing’ extended the rhubarb season by several months, and gave a product with a sweeter flavour. Today, forced rhubarb is best known as Yorkshire produce, but it is interesting to find that it has its ‘roots’ in London.