The First Rhubarb Of The Season
Lillie O’Brien & I were at Covent Garden Market before dawn to get the pick of the crop of forced rhubarb. It is the only English fruit that is in season now and we bought it straight off the truck that had driven down overnight from the famous Yorkshire Triangle, where a frost pocket sweetens the rhubarb naturally and, after four generations, the Oldroyd family still grow rhubarb by candlelight in the time-honoured method. Once upon a time there was a Rhubarb Express to deliver trainloads of rhubarb to the hordes of eager Londoners craving rhubarb, but yesterday there was just Lillie & me seeking rhubarb while the city slept.
Formerly a pastry chef at St John Bread & Wine, these days Lillie O’Brien is the London Borough of Jam - a one-woman operation producing small batches of the highest quality preserves from the freshest seasonal ingredients. Our joint mission was to buy the best rhubarb, drive back to Lillie’s tiny kitchen in Clapton and make it into jam. At five thirty, we were driving down to Covent Garden and by ten thirty we had jam, it was a highly satisfactory achievement for so early on a January morning.
At the market, we were greeted by Paul & Terry of Lenards wholesalers. By then, the night’s trading was already over but it was the ideal opportunity for a rhubarb hunt and Paul & Terry were the expert guides to lead us to the best options available. The one diversion from our rhubarb quest was for blood oranges from Sicily, and as I stood in the sub-zero temperature of the market, I was transported to Southern climes by the intense sweetness of the ruby-red flesh of this gleaming golden fruit. Lily took a box to make some marmalade.
We found fat rhubarb and thin rhubarb, long rhubarb and short rhubarb. Some that was past its best and some that looked rather pale. Apparently, chefs like fat rhubarb to create chunks in their crumble, but Lillie prefers a smooth texture to her jam and when she opened a box of skinny rhubarb – blushing almost coral in its redness – her eyes widened in excitement and I knew we were in business.
In a state of raging anticipation, we carried our crates of gleaming rhubarb into Lillie’s tiny kitchen and Lillie shrieked with excitement at the ice-cold water as she washed the stalks in the sink. We paused briefly to admire the aesthetics of the curly dappled flowers before we beheaded them mercilessly and Lillie chopped one kilo of rhubarb into small pieces, while Chester her cheeky blue cat rubbed at her ankles.
Since the age of twelve, Lillie worked at a part-time job at a food store called Tartine in her home town of Melbourne, where she grew up under the influence of her mother’s cookery. “When I was a child, my mother made crab apple jelly but when you are little, you don’t like it – so she had a cupboard to herself with a year’s supply.” Lillie recalled with a sentimental grin. On leaving school, Lillie did a three year cooking apprenticeship and then five years as a chef at the celebrated Cicciolina mediterranean bistro before deciding to come travelling around Europe for six months. A tour that was cut short when a pal walked into St John Bread & Wine to ask if there were any jobs, was told a pastry chef was required and gave Lillie’s name. “I went in for a trial and stayed for four years,” admitted Lillie, “which I have to say went very quickly. I made the jam and preserves while I was there. But then I decided wanted to be part of the market at Chatsworth Rd and I found that working at St John by day and making jam all night was quite tough. So it was time to move on from cheffing – from four years of rolling puff pastry that has given me enlarged muscles in my neck and from whisking eggs that has caused one arm to grow larger than the other! But I do miss it though…”
Lillie talked as she worked, weighing up the rhubarb and then transferring it to her beautiful copper jam pan. Copper is the best conductor of heat which means that the fruit will cook evenly, avoiding any overcooking that might compromise the flavour. This is why Lillie cooks her jam in small batches because larger amounts take longer to cook and the fruit does not cook consistently. Adding jam sugar and then the juice of a lemon, Lillie kept stirring as the liquid evaporated and the rhubarb reduced to an even texture. Meanwhile, she heated the jam jars and boiled the lids, both to sterilise them and to ensure that her hot jam had a hot jars to go into into, so there was no risk of the glass breaking.
Lillie constantly checked the consistency of the jam, its viscosity revealed by how it dripped from the spoon. Then she added the finely chopped stem ginger and the jam was almost ready. “I’m so happy, I’m beside myself with the colour! This is going to be the most beautiful rhubarb jam I ever made.” she declared in unmitigated delight, as she poured it from the pan through her jam funnel, making just four jars. This painstaking technique required Lillie to spend the rest of the day working through her twelve kilogrammes of rhubarb, yet ensured the unmediated fruitiness that characterises her jam.
An essential trip to Gardners Market Sundriesmen was required to purchase more labels for this new batch of jam before Paul Gardner left for the weekend, which meant that Paul was the lucky recipient of the first pot of jam. Then Lillie returned to her kitchen for a long day’s jam-making before writing the labels that evening, and all so the rhubarb & ginger jam can be on sale this weekend.
A lush deep pink jam with a vivid flavour that is more rhubarb than even rhubarb, a perfectly spreadable texture and a subtle piquancy of ginger – this is what I shall be having on my toast at breakfast, thanks to the London Borough of Jam.
Washing the rhubarb
Weighing the rhubarb
The rhubarb in Lillie’s jam pan
Adding the jam sugar
Testing the consistency
Rhubarb & Ginger Jam by the London Borough of Jam
Paul Gardner of Gardners Market Sundriesmen gets the first pot of rhubarb & ginger jam
You can buy jams and preserves by London Borough of Jam at Leila’s Shop, Violet Cakes & E5 Bakery, and each weekend from Lillie’s shop at 51d Chatsworth Rd, E5 0LH.
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