Rhubarb season is nearly upon us, meaning it’s set to pop up on seasonally-themed menus across the UK, most likely as a crumble or a tart.

Whether paired with custard or on its own, rhubarb as a flavour has been gaining interest in bakery circles and further afield. Here’s why it’s one to watch in 2019.

Rhubarb-tinted glasses

“Nostalgia has played a massive part in the return of rhubarb as a flavour. Retro flavours and tastes of childhood have all been entering the market for the past two years,” says House of Flavours managing director Dave Twiss.

“Most people have a warm memory of rhubarb and custard from their childhoods, if not the dish itself, then at least the sweets.”

This hankering for the comforts of childhood has also led to the rise of mallow-based treats and the revival of classic sweet shop flavours in bakery, such as Parma Violets and popping candy.

Gin is in

Interest in rhubarb has also been driven by more grown-up factors as well.

“Rhubarb as a fruit and a flavour has seen a real renaissance, helped by the growing craft gin movement,” says Hugh Evans, marketing manager for Europe and Asia, Synergy Flavours.

A search of Sainsbury’s website for rhubarb gin brings up five offerings from brands such as Whitley Neill, Edinburgh Gin and Tiptree, with ginger and rose among the popular flavour combinations. Asda even has a Rhubarb & Rose Gin Liqueur as part of its Extra Special range, while wine brand Blossom Hill has ventured into gin territory with a Lemon, Rosemary & Rhubarb Gin Fizz.

This, in itself, has already crossed over to the bakery sector, with Extra Special Rhubarb Gin Mince Pies forming part of Asda’s festive menu while Extra Special Rhubarb & Gin Cookies are new for spring. A Rhubarb Tonic & Bloom Gin cake was also on the menu at a pop-up bakery hosted by Pearl & Groove in collaboration with mixers brand Fentimans last year.

Best of British

With Brexit approaching, consumers are increasingly focused on home-grown produce – something rhubarb is benefiting from.

“This has presented the flavour to a new generation of consumers who may previously have experienced rhubarb as children only in pies and crumbles,” adds Evans.

For Aldi, this takes the form of Specially Selected Rhubarb & Custard Hot Cross Buns, which are packed full of “delicious rhubarb chunks”. The retailer describes the NPD as capturing “the quintessential flavours of the nation’s favourite combination in a hot cross bun”.

An even more unusual twist, meshing two British classics together, is The Real Yorkshire Pudding Co’s Yorkshire Pud with Rhubarb & Ginger Crumble, which launched in Asda last year.

Embrace the sourness

One reasons for the traditional rhubarb and custard pairing was to make the taste of rhubarb more palatable, but it seems that may no longer be the case.

“Rhubarb as a flavour is also quite sour – in the past, people would try to offset this with custard and a lot of sugar. However, modern consumers are beginning to embrace sourness,” Evans adds.

House of Flavour’s Twiss advises to mix it with other fruit, to enhance the flavour. “It’s best to use a low level of red fruit like raspberry as an inclusion to lift the red notes of the rhubarb,” he says.

But rhubarb and custard still reigns supreme, allthough the flavour combination is evolving to become more premium.

Wembley-based Longboys, which specialises in brioche finger doughnuts, offers a Rhubarb, Custard and Orange Longboy, complete with rhubarb jam, orange custard, poached rhubarb and vanilla sugar. Notably, the business focuses on a lighter brioche base, interesting flavour twists and fresh toppings so its loaded doughnuts aren’t overly sweet.

And, with concerns over sugar showing no sign of abating, embracing the fruit in its natural state could appease those seeking a treat without too much sugar.