Personally, I can take rhubarb or leave it. I like a nice rhubarb crumble (especially with brown sugar and ground almonds in the crumble mix), but I also have unhappy memories of stewed rhubarb at school, the stems being a brown gelatinous mess laced with fibres which stuck in the teeth (as well as setting them on edge), served with custard of an unnatural yellow, lumps, and a revolting thick skin. I was vaguely aware that it was medicinal in some respect (possibly purgative?), but I didn’t realise that it had such large economic significance across Eurasia.
We have reissued a number of books on western exploration of Siberia (in addition to the large number sea/ice-based expeditions in our Polar series). In chronological order, they are (so far):
Bell, Travels from St Petersburg in Russia, to Diverse Parts of Asia (2 vols., 1763)
Coxe, Account of the Russian Discoveries between Asia and America (3rd edn, 1787)
Dobell, Travels in Kamtchatka and Siberia (2 vols., 1830)
Lansdell, Through Siberia (2 vols., 1882)
Nansen, Through Siberia, the Land of the Future (1914)
All are very much worth reading, but the earliest, Bell and Coxe, are (in my opinion) the best.
John Bell (1691–1780) was yet another Scots physician who emigrated, but instead of going down to London, he managed to get a letter of recommendation to the court of Peter the Great in St Petersburg: the tsar’s personal physician ‘Dr Areskine’ was in fact an exiled Jacobite of the Erskine family. Arriving in July 1714, within a year he was on his way to Persia, as part of a diplomatic mission to the emperor of Persia, the ‘Grand Sophy’. The journey to Isfahan and back took 42 months, and Bell’s record of it includes sights, people, food, and oddities such as the alleged ‘vegetable lamb of Tartary’, which he takes much pleasure in debunking.
On his return, Bell learned that his patron Areskine had died, but also that the tsar was about to send another embassy, this time to the emperor of China, and pulled a few strings to be included. Again, he noted what feels like everything he saw on the road, including the strange wooden bee-hives of the Kazan region (where incidentally multi-national prisoners from the tsar’s war against Sweden were being held, in comfort and relative freedom, but a long way from home).
It’s difficult to keep to rhubarb when there are so many distractions, including the ancient tombs near Tomsk which the locals excavate every summer, finding ‘considerable quantities of gold, silver, brass and some precious stones…’, or the abundance of the huge horns of an animal which the natives called a ‘mammont’ (which allegedly has been seen alive) , or how to tame a musk-deer. But the ‘urga’, a city of tents near the borders of Russia and China when the secular prince and the high priest of the region (who is reincarnated as a child, just like the Dalai Lama) live, is the great mart between the two countries.
‘The Chinese bring hither ingots of gold, damasks, and other silk and cotton stuffs, tea, and some porcelain [not top-quality, Bell notes]… The Russian commodities are chiefly furs of all sorts. Rhubarb is the principal article which is exchanged for these goods, great quantities whereof are produced in this country, without any culture. The Mongalls gather and dry it in the autumn; and bring it to this market, where it is bought up at an easy rate, both by the Russian and Chinese merchants.’
Later, having crossed the border, and heading towards the Great Wall of China, ‘I walked from our tents, … to the top of a neighbouring hill, where I found many plants of excellent rhubarb; and by the help of a stick, dug up as much of it as I wanted.’ He also noticed a close relationship between flourishing rhubarb plants and the local marmot population: either their dung fertilised the plants, or their digging loosened the soil, enabling easier germination, or indeed both.
He also describes the way the Mongols harvest and store the roots. They chop them into chunks and suspend these on strings to dry, sometimes between the horns of their sheep: this destroys much of the harvest, as the area around the string rots. But the merchants think improvements in this area ‘not worthy of their attention’, as they make a huge profit anyway. ‘I have been more particular in describing the growth and management of the rhubarb; because I never met with an author … who could give a satisfactory account where, or how, it grows.’ But he believes that in a similar climate, it could be brought to flourish.
William Coxe (1748–1828), the clergyman whose memoir of his stepfather, who was Handel’s amanuensis, we have also reissued, became a traveller as a result of his role as tutor to various young aristocrats on their European grand tours – a ‘bear-leader’, in later parlance. In St Petersburg, he obtained sight of journals by Russian explorers, and also found an anonymous German work on Russian Arctic voyages between 1745 and 1770. He published it in 1780 (we have reissued the third edition, of 1787), adding various journals and accounts of exploration in Siberia, Kamchatka and the American Arctic, together with information on trade between Russia and China, including a chapter on rhubarb.
Coxe begins by distinguishing two types of rhubarb, coming from Russia and the ‘East Indies’ respectively. Russian rhubarb used to be known as ‘Turkey rhubarb’, as it was imported across the Black Sea to Constantinople and then Venice (famous for its apothecary shops full of exotic elixirs). He describes the various merchant exchanges between the Chinese border and St Petersburg, which effectively double the ‘raw’ price, the superiority of Russian to Chinese rhubarb, and the amounts exported (in Russian poods weight and Dutch dollars currency, alas).
The story of how we started eating the stems as food rather than the roots as medicine, the origins of the great Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle (the climate of West Yorkshire being appropriately Siberian, it seems), the Rhubarb Express trains of the nineteenth century, and the award in 2010 of EU ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ status to Yorkshire forced rhubarb, would need a whole other blog.