At the annual Rhubarb Show dinner in Wakefield, the only one of its kind in the world, there was a great deal of muttering among the guests. What was the hubbub, bub? If you put your ear to the television set and listened, really carefully, you could actually hear what they were saying. "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb." And again: "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb."
Who would win top honours at the show? We looked at row after pristine row of stalks. One of the judges explained what he was looking for. Strong, succulent stalks with no blemishes and certainly no fingernail imprints, if you don't mind. There they sat, as red, tender and blamelessly trembling as a young girl's lips, though hardly as kissable. Who could dare do violence to these virginal lengths by presuming to choose the best?
"It's a bit like the racing car industry," said Douglas Cook, wholesaler and judge, with the hyperbole customary among devotees of the seemingly prosaic when called upon to comment in TV documentaries. "These are the Ferraris of the rhubarb business."
There is a Rhubarb Triangle, you know, described by three straight lines that connect Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield. People sail blithely into this mystical zone and emerge transformed, talking endlessly about the miraculous plants they have seen, and vowing to make it their lives' work to convert a sceptical public to rhubarb worship. Philip Crossley was one. "I've been selling rhubarb at Halifax market for over 30 years. You've got to love the rhubarb. You've really got to love it. I really don't believe the supermarkets do this product justice. Rhubarb's grown with a lot of love, affection and care."
It's hard to create televisual poetry about a humble garden plant, albeit one that hails from the East and has powerful narcotic qualities if kiln dried and ground down, but the makers of Serious Rhubarb (BBC2) gave it their best shot. As wholesalers' lorries raced the rhubarb nouveau from Yorkshire to expectant greengrocers in Glasgow, narrator Jean Alexander merely listed the varieties, which was enough to bring a twinkle to the eye. "Timperley Early. Queen Victoria. Prince Albert. Appleton's Forcing. Merton Foremost. Stockbridge Arrow."
Jean Alexander, formerly Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street, was a good choice to narrate this fond tribute. In her new, posher TV incarnation, Jean sounds like Thora Hird but more breathless, as though Thora had been whisked up to the bathroom too fast on her Stairmaster.
At Glasgow, champion grower Janet Olroyd Hulme set out her wares before a greengrocer. She described the differences between the two varieties, drawing attention to the yellow leaves of the Stockbridge Arrow and the more golden appearance of the Stockbridge Harbinger. She gave recipe tips.
She also handed out leaflets. "Leaflets for the Wakefield Rhubarb Trail, you say?" exclaimed Glasgow's hardest men. "Hot diggety!" There was much dancing in Sauchiehall Street that night.
But how do they make these stalks so pristine, so ruddy, so devoid of the gnarlings, black spots and slug holes that afflict that clump at the bottom of my garden? Good question. What they do is force the rhubarb for three months in the dark of massive warehouses. Those vast buildings you thought housed secret USAF weaponry in fact contain things that are much more sinister. We saw men with spades carrying in the roots and, later, lots of rows of rhubarb, concentrating hard on growing and avoiding fingernail wounds.
But then what? There was little, far too little, about the culinary uses of this plant. Even the Rhubarb Show dinner only had rhubarb crumble on its menu. But that's no good. There should have been rhubarb for every course, show-casing its many virtues. Rhubarb and potato soup, followed by grilled red mullet covered with thyme and rhubarb butter. Classic rhubarb fool for pudding. Finally, of course, the ladies should have retired, leaving the men to warm their brandies and suck on long, red, smoking stalks.
Nor was there enough about how rhubarb tastes. But we can remedy that right now. The Guardian website is now so sophisticated that we have been able to suffuse the first half of this article with the taste of Stockbridge Arrow, and the second with Stockbridge Harbinger. Lick the first half now - you know you want to. Yes? And then the second. That's right. Now don't tell me you can't tell the difference.