If there’s one thing you can be certain to find on menus across Wakefield this weekend, it’s rhubarb.
After a year’s hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the city’s celebrated Rhubarb Festival is making its return - and new for this year is a food and drink trail offering visitors the chance to sample the local delicacy in many forms.
“Rhubarb runs in Wakefield’s DNA,” says Coun Michael Graham, Wakefield Council’s cabinet member for culture, leisure and sport. “We’re excited to be able to host the festival once again and this year’s additions to the programme will encourage visitors to explore our city centre and discover its exciting hospitality scene.”
Around 30 bars, restaurants and cafes have signed up to the trail and the venues will serve diners and drinkers with rhubarb-themed sweet and savoury goods including scones, tiramisu, cheese, burgers, cocktails and smoothies.
It is one way in which it is hoped the event will support the city’s food and drink sector, showcasing Wakefield’s hospitality businesses and giving them a boost after the hit they have suffered throughout the pandemic.
“After Covid, an important priority is to get the footfall back into Wakefield…and festivals really help with that,” Coun Graham says.
“The rhubarb festival is so well established now, people know it’s coming, they get excited for it and they come from all over the country. It’s important we build up that tourism again and remind people that we’re here.
“We have all the stalls and street entertainment right in the middle of the city centre but we wanted to really bring together our independent bars, restaurants and cafes and get them involved with the festival too...The list of what is on offer is huge.”
Ben Efron, who runs Leaf & Bean Delicatessen, is among those taking part in the trail. “I think the rhubarb festival is probably one of Wakefield’s most important events, definitely one of the busiest,” he says. “It seems to pull a lot of people in and that’s always a good thing.”
The trail, says Ben, will get people moving around the city centre, experiencing different venues and sampling what Wakefield has to offer.
“It should keep people in Wakefield city centre throughout the day rather than them just coming, having a look around and then going home after a couple of hours,” he says.
Jess Kendall, who runs The Art House Coffee House, hopes it will help her to capture a new audience after launching her venture during the pandemic.
“People are still discovering us and it’s nice to think people will see the trail and potentially come for the first time,” Jess says. “The ethos of the cafe is to celebrate local artists and local produce - and rhubarb is what Wakefield is famous for.”
The city’s long-standing link with rhubarb goes right back to the 19th century. Historically, rhubarb had been used for medicinal purposes, but culinary use began in the UK from around the 1800s.
“By the beginning of the 19th century, rhubarb began to be cultivated in the West Riding,” Steph Bennett, an Archive Assistant with the West Yorkshire Archive Service, explains.
“Local soil types, rainfall and the consumer market were all good for the rhubarb industry between Wakefield, Morley and Leeds (the Rhubarb Triangle).
“Rhubarb plants prefer moisture and need a plentiful supply of water during growth and local clay subsoils hold the moisture very well.”
The industry boomed from the 1880s, with the Rhubarb Triangle supplying markets in London and onto Europe. By the time of the Second World War, the West Riding grew almost 50 per cent of the national total of rhubarb.
Special sheds were erected in the area for the purpose of cultivating it out of season, with the warm and dark conditions encouraging its growth. Still today, these sheds are used to grow Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb, which gained European protection in 2010.
Wakefield’s Rhubarb Festival, running this year from February 25 to 27, celebrates this culinary heritage.
Layla Baker, who runs Lobby 1867 bar has spent her life in the Rhubarb Triangle. “Culturally, this is an important part of Wakefield’s history,” she says.
“The festival is a cultural nod to the heritage of Wakefield, which is in-keeping with the bar and what we’re about.
“The bar is called Lobby 1867 because the building itself was built then and the decor is sympathetic to the time - we have images of Wakefield’s past throughout.”
The bar is also part of the new food and drink trail and will offer a range of rhubarb drinks. “The festival is great,” Layla says. “It brings people in to see what the city has to offer.
“I hope now that things are going to start picking up and people are going to start enjoying the night-time economy again and have the confidence to go out again safely.”
Antony de Csernatony, who runs Kraft Koffee, hopes the trail will bring more people through the door.
“Rhubarb for Wakefield is massive and I think we do need to make a big thing of it,” he says.
“Certainly coming through Covid and the restrictions we’ve had, the festival is going to be great to get more footfall in the city centre but also to get people to understand what’s new here and what is on offer for people.”
This year’s festival includes a new programme of chef demonstrations, curated by Yorkshire Food Guide, as well as family workshops, street entertainment and a food and drink market with more than 50 traders.
Among those cooking are Saturday Kitchen regular and food writer Sabrina Ghayour, Great British Bake Off 2021 vegan baker Freya Cox and MasterChef: The Professionals’ finalists Jono Hawthorne and Matt Healy.
Running in February each year, the festival is one of the first food and drink events in the national calendar.
In 2019, it attracted tens of thousands of people and Coun Graham is confident of a successful comeback year.
“You might not think people will want to be outside in the city centre [in February] but they do,” he says. “People love getting wrapped up - and they can get inside and watch chef demonstrations and there’s lots of rhubarb food to keep them warm.”
“The festival is a great opportunity to get the whole community, the district and visitors from outside in the same spot having fun together back like it used to be [before the pandemic],” he adds.
“I’m hoping the festival grows even bigger than previous years. People are ready now to get out and get back to stuff I think. I’m optimistic we could see record numbers.”
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