Growing up in a house in Rathfarnham with six vegetable beds, two apple trees and a cold frame, my brothers and I were lucky enough to eat something from the garden almost every day.
Much of this produce felt like a treat – I remember many happy afternoons shelling peas in a sunny spot on the living room floor, and I was fiercely protective of a hidden bramble that produced one or two loganberries every summer. We even had our own ‘gardens’ one year (3 metre by metre plots – I was obsessed with watching my drill of salad onions grow; my brother used his as a terrain for lego adventures), although these plots were quietly retired the following spring and put back into use for potatoes.
But lovely though this stream of produce was, some of the harvests felt never-ending. As a child whose greatest vice was novelty, it often felt like the contents of the garden dominated proceedings in our household like an unwelcome guest.
Leeks and kale seemed to grow in infinite supply (infinite!), and cries in the supermarket (actual tears, even then I was very particular about food) for profiteroles for Sunday dessert would invariably be met with the calm reminder that there was rhubarb in the garden that ‘needed using up’.
The rhubarb in question grew in a dank patch near the compost heap, and it always seemed to turn from pretty little pink buds to thick relay race batons overnight. It grew too fast, tasted too sharp and consequently was hard to love for all of us except my brother, who tucked into raw stems of it while playing in the garden and then invariably suffered the inevitable sore tummy consequences.
But when I grew up, moved out, and started trying to grow food myself on windowsills in Portobello, Phibsborough, Shepherd’s Bush & Kentish Town, I realized how much eating in step with the seasons matters to me; how wonderful it is to have the ever-evolving, ever-refreshing pantry that a garden brings.
Many years after moving out, and many rentals later, I still haven’t managed to end up in a place with a garden of my own, but there have always been good farmers’ markets nearby, which give something of the same feeling of staying close to the seasons; of selecting what’s best for that week; of waiting a little longer for the best treats; of making do with what’s there in the fallow weeks.
After a winter of dutifully eating brassicas uncomplainingly from the farmers’ markets (I am a grown-up now, after all), forced pink rhubarb, with its frilly tops and sweet shop hues now feels like the ultimate treat to me – seeing it makes me feel like spring has really arrived. And profiteroles could never do that.
RHUBARB & FRANGIPANE TART
This tart is a simple, easy way to celebrate rhubarb – either forced rhubarb, or forced-on-you rhubarb. If you’re using the latter, later, hardier type, increase the amount of sugar that you sprinkle over before baking by a tablespoon.
6 stems of forced rhubarb, ends trimmed
1 roll of good quality ready-made puff pastry, rolled out to a 35cm x 23cm rectangle
1 medium free-range egg
Zest of half a lemon
Dash of vanilla extract
115g icing sugar
115g ground almonds
4.5 heaped tbsps caster sugar
1 tbsp crème fraîche, plus more to serve
Dash of milk
Preheat your oven to 200°c. Place the puff pastry onto baking parchment and slide onto a large baking tray.
To make the frangipane, combine the ground almonds with the icing sugar, the crème fraiche, the egg, the vanilla and the lemon zest. Use a butter knife to lightly mark out a rectangle a few centimetres in from the edges of the pastry, so that it looks like a picture frame. Spread the frangipane evenly across the inner rectangle, leaving the outside part of the ‘frame’ free.
Cut the rhubarb into batons and combine in a bowl with 2.5 tablespoons of caster sugar and leave to macerate for 10 mins. Arrange the rhubarb pieces over the frangipane in whatever pattern you fancy and sprinkle over the remaining caster sugar. Fold the edges of the pastry up and crimp around the rhubarb to adhere. Brush the pastry edges with a dash of milk. Bake for 20-25 mins, or until the rhubarb is tender and the pastry is deeply golden but not browning. Cool on a rack for a few minutes then cut into slices. if you fancy it a little sweeter still, sieve over a little icing sugar. Serve with crème fraiche.