It is the year 1542 in France. What costs more than cinnamon and saffron?
Rhubarb! At that time, it was imported to Europe overland from its area of origin near the Volga for medicinal use. Shakespeare refers to rhubarb’s therapeutic properties in Act V, scene iii, of Macbeth. Wishing to get rid of the enemy, Macbeth asks, “What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug/Would scour these English hence?” The word rhubarb is still used in the theater today, though not to repel the audience. Actors repeat it to simulate crowd noise. In the world of baseball, rhubarb means a fight.
When rhubarb appears at the market, I don’t feel like starting a fight. Instead, I am relieved – no more apple or pear concoctions for dessert, spring is here! After unpacking the first beautiful pink-green pastel stalks (or petioles, as the botanists say) from my market bag, I inevitably prepare a rhubarb compote, stewing chopped rhubarb in its own juices with a splash of rosewater until it softens. I mix in just enough honey to temper the tartness.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) and buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) belong to the same botanical family, Polygonaceae. In the following recipe, they come together in layers. Buckwheat flour is mixed into the cake, while the rhubarb nestles on top, keeping a cautious distance from its pseudocereal cousin.
500 g rhubarb (about 3 cups chopped)
250 g (2 cups) mixture of buckwheat and whole wheat flour (I split it 50-50)
50 g (4 Tbs) sugar
2 ts baking powder
½ ts salt
125 g (½ cup + 2 Tbs) butter
2 Tbs rosewater
Preheat the oven to 200°C (400 °F). Butter a 20 x 32 cm (9 X 13 inch) baking dish.
Chop the rhubarb into small pieces. Set aside.
Mix the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl. Use a fork (low-tech and conducive to meditation) or food processor (high-tech and conducive to uniformity) to cut in the butter.
In a small bowl, combine the eggs and rosewater. Add to the flour-butter mixture, stirring until the ingredients are combined in a thick batter.
Pour the batter into the baking dish, making sure it is even. Arrange the pieces of rhubarb on top of the batter.
Bake for 40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Serve with lots of honey drizzled on top.