Meet the grandfather 'hero' behind Yorkshire's forced rhubarb reputation as he reflects on 80 years of change
This is forced rhubarb growing, as his father and grandfather did before him. Now, under the success of his son and daughter-in-law Robert and Paula, Tomlinson Rhubarb is a firm favourite on chefs’ tables from New York to Paris.
As Mr Tomlinson turned 80 last week, his son proclaimed that 'not all heroes wear capes'. In the family sheds at Pudsey, the grandfather-of-five dons a flatcap instead. As today marks the start of Wakefield's Rhubarb Festival, he can still remember when there was so much rhubarb in the region it took a full train to transport it.
"There used to be a steam train, from Leeds to London five nights a week, just for rhubarb," he said. "It was the Rhubarb Special. We had a little goods carriage come to Pudsey every day, and we'd put our rhubarb in there with all the other growers."
Yorkshire is famous for its rhubarb triangle, measuring nine miles between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, and with this weekend's three-day festival celebrating with street stalls, gins and tasters, demonstrations and entertainers.
Mr Tomlinson's grandfather Robert bought their family farm in Pudsey back in 1903. Ordnance Survey maps show there was a forced rhubarb shed on the site by 1906.
"Since then we've never missed forcing rhubarb," he said. "Most of the growers at Wakefield gave up, they still grew rhubarb but not forced. It just fell out of fashion."
Forced rhubarb, he explained, is tricking it into believing it’s summer by growing in sheds under a controlled warm environment, using candles to keep out the light. It makes for a sweeter taste, a brighter colour more favoured on plates. And it creaks as it grows, each stem bursting from its bud with a pop as the stalks rub together.
With more exotic imports, forced rhubarb had fallen from favour, with the Tomlinsons the only known farmers to have continuously used this technique. Then it started to get noticed again, since growing to new heights as a fashionable flavour. First it was chefs, then bakers and makers. When the Tomlinson's distinctive red and yellow box appeared on James Martin's Saturday Kitchen, they sold all the rhubarb they had. Now it is a favourite of Michelin chef Tommy Banks and Bettys tearooms.
As Mr Tomlinson looks back to when he was a boy, starting on the family farm as he left school at 15, he is struck by Yorkshire's now world-famous rhubarb reputation.
"Our rhubarb, would you believe it?," he wondered. "From these little sheds in Yorkshire it's going all around the world. They rave about it in America.
"It used to be a bit of a joke, when you said you were a rhubarb grower,” he added. “Everybody grew it in the garden. Now it's changed. It's become a real luxury item."