Beetroot divides the world. You love it or hate it.
For those who love it, the sweet, earthy tones are equally complimentary with crunchy salads and sharp pickles. It is the base ingredient of Eastern Europe’s favourite soup, Borscht, obligatory cubed with every French dish of crudites, and the default relish on the Great Australian Burger – Aussies being the world’s biggest consumer of the humble beet. For those who hate it, it usually becomes a traumatic regression to childhood experiences of cold, fat slabs of dark bleeding flesh dumped unceremoniously from a giant catering tin onto what was a perfectly good school dinner.
Like so many things so many people don’t like, Beetroot is fabulously healthy. It bursts with vitamins A, B and C, has more minerals than a Saudi oil well and is rich in other goodies such as folic acid and beta carotene.
It is reputed to aid digestion, clean the liver and counteract constipation. Its reputation as being iron-rich is a little more suspect, but there is enough evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that beetroot has anti-cancer properties for serious research to continue.
As far back as 1826 beets were used to treat tumours of the nose, and the Mexicans have been using beets in the fight against tropical disease for years. Jewish Talmud medicine recommends eating beetroot, drinking mead and bathing in the Euphrates.
The Ancient Greeks seem to have been the first to discover the epicurative value of the Sea Beet (B. Maritimus). They gathered the leaves of the wild plant, saving the roots for medicinal purposes, to ‘cool the blood.’ The Oracle at Delphi pronounced beets second only to horseradish in mystic potency, and Aphrodite apparently ate beetroot to retain her famed beauty.
“In some Oceanic mythologies, the universe is pictured as a giant beetroot, hollow on the inside,” says folklorist Peter Ramsay, of GodcheckerDotCom, “and in several Talmud ceremonies beetroot is used to ward off disease.” In Norse myth Kvasir, the god of Knowledge, is slaughtered by dwarves and his blood drained to make Kvas, the Mead of Inspiration. It was thought to be lost when Odin drank the lot, but Knowledge was saved when it was discovered that fermented beetroot juice produced much the same effect.
“In later folklore, beetroots can have an aphrodisiac effect. If a man and a woman eat from the same beetroot, they will fall in love,” adds Ramsay, pointing out beets are roughly the same colour and shape as the organ of love, the heart. He has not tested out the theory yet.
Beets have also traditionally been used as one of the classic dyes – both in textiles and in Slavic countries, to colour hens’ eggs at Easter.
It was the Romans who first cultivated beetroot. Early Christians helped spread its popularity and by the 16th Century the root was well established – French gourmand Olivier de Serres described it in 1600 as “a very red, rather fat root with leaves like Swiss Chard, all of which are good to eat.” Diarist John Evelyn found cold slices of beetroot made a “grateful winter sallet” whilst also noting the French and Italians carved the roots into curious shapes for their tables.
The classic red shape is still the most popular, but golden beetroot is becoming more available, and for those interested in growing their own, newly available varieties include the delightfully bullseye-striped “Chioggia” from the Venice region of Italy. “It’s not new,” says Paolo Arrigo of Seeds of Italy, who import it. “The Italians love their old varieties and this one is probably from the nineteenth century or earlier.” When it is cut in half, it has “tree rings,” similar to a red onion, though, like all beetroot, it should never be cut before cooking. “Leave a small bit of stalk on to prevent the colour, flavour and goodness bleeding,” advises Arrigo. Beetroot stores well, but should be kept whole until used.
Beetroot is very easy to grow. Sow the seed around April time, – classic varieties include Wodan and Warrior, or experiment with some of the more unusual kinds such as Detroit 2 and Choggia. Bull’s Blood has, as might be imagined, the richest red of all. To avoid gluts, plant in batches. They can be container-grown – choose the largest one available – it can be cute (though not wildly happy) in teeny pots. Adding a little salt to the soil reminds the plant of its maritime ancestors.
Treat the leaves like spinach, or chard, which is a close relative. Other beetroot relatives include Sugar Beet and mangle wurzels, roots grown mainly as animal fodder.
In Eastern Europe, home of the famous Borscht soup, many villagers still prepare a pail of pickled beetroot for the winter months. A classic Scots recipe for Stovies – meat, potatoes and onions – is traditionally eaten with beetroot, oatcakes and whisky. Further south, fresh, it can be eaten raw – grated – but more often it is steamed or boiled then eaten cold with salads or meats. When buying beetroot, make sure it is small and fresh – preferably with the leaves left on to ensure freshness.
The cooking process takes around 20 minutes depending on the size of the root – test for softness with a skewer. If it is briefly cooled under running water it will peel more easily. The traditional method of pickling it in jars was made commercially popular in 1928 when Scots grocer William Baxter found, on his travels, a glut of beetroots going to waste. He called his wife Ethel and the two of them created a new line that became an immediate bestseller.
The classic pickle-in-a-jar way of eating beetroot is as popular as ever – it is still Baxter’s top-selling line. But people are becoming more and more inventive with the way they use the root – Paolo Arrigo mixes chopped beetroot with yoghurt to use as a side dish, and other innovative recipes have included beetroot souffles, whizzed with carrots in health juices
The smaller beets are, the better they will taste. Baby beets can be roasted to retain their earthy flavour, and are being combined with other nutty flavours or contrasting ones such as the sharpness of citrus. Heston Blumenthal, has great fun experimenting with beetroot.
“The main active ingredient in beets is the same as in spinach and snails,” he says. “We did a taste test with beetroot and snails and they were very difficult to tell apart – it’s the earthiness that gives it away.” Blumenthal has no plans to combine the two – they are too similar, but he has used beetroots in petit-fours. He is only too aware of people’s prejudices . “We had someone ask ‘what’s this?’ When she was told it was beetroot she was unimpressed, but as soon as we said “no, actually, we were joking, it’s actually blackcurrant,” she loved it,” he chuckles.
It’s always been important in Blumenthal’s philosophy to play with people’s expectations. In one recipe for Orange and Beetroot jelly, he deliberately exchanged the two flavours and colours. “The trick is to try and find two ingredients whose perceived natural colour would be that of the other ingredient.” The glorious orange colour jelly was, in fact, golden beetroot, whilst the deep red jelly turned out to be blood orange.
My sister recently admitted she had been terrified to eat beetroot for twenty years after being ticked off for getting the juice down her frock as a child. She could have avoided all this by trying the classic folk remedy of rubbing a slice of pear over the stain before washing normally.
I’m rather taken with this extraordinarily fiddly, but rather beautiful dish of beetroot roses. Will I even make it? Probably not, but hats off to Mei Wong for making it…