The beetroot is the taproot portion of the beet plant, usually known in North America as the beet, also table beet, garden beet, red beet, or golden beet. It is one of several of the cultivated varieties of Beta vulgaris, grown for their edible taproots and their leaves, beet greens. Beta is the classic Latin name for beets, possibly Celtic origin before becoming bete in Old English in the 1400s.
Other than as a food, beets have use as a food colouring and as a medicinal plant. From the Middle Ages, beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of conditions, especially illnesses relating to digestion and the blood. Bartolomeo Platina recommended taking beetroot with garlic to nullify the effects of “garlic-breath”. Many beet products are made from other Beta vulgaris varieties, particularly sugar beet. During the mid-1800s, beetroot juice was used to colour wine. Beetroot can also be used to make wine nowadays completely, no longer just an addition to the drink made from grapes.
I’ve only ever used ‘Bolthardy’ but I think that it is a brilliant variety. Very rich, dark pinky-red colour, tastes pretty good and lasts in the ground for a long time. I grew too many two years ago and had loads left over in the ground (seeing as only three people in my family liked beetroot then). I thought they would just rot and I would give them to the pigs in winter, but they didn’t. I have been pulling them up two summers on. The outside is as rough as I thought it would be so I discard them, but the inside is still usable. Of course, I would recommend harvesting them in their first season as that will be when they are most delicious!
Another variety I have seen in a vegetable garden lately is candy coloured beetroot – white with pink swirls in it, called ‘Chioggia’. It is very pretty and tastes good too.
To grow beetroot seeds, sow thinly, March-July, where they are to crop, 2.5cm (1″) deep, directly into finely-prepared, well-cultivated, fertile soil, which has already been watered. Allow 30cm (1′) between rows. I discovered that mine grew so much better when the ground was fed with well rotted manure. Beetroots can be grown in shade, but they seem to prosper more in direct sunlight. Keep them shaded when starting off with horticultural fleece. Regular sowings every three weeks should ensure a continuous supply of young beetroots. Harvest June-October. Harvested roots can be stored in dry sand for winter use.
Usually the deep purple roots of beetroot are eaten boiled, roasted or raw, either alone or combined with any salad. A large proportion of the commercial production is processed into boiled and sterilised beets or into pickles. In Eastern Europe, the beetroot soup borscht is popular. In India, chopped and spiced beetroot is a delicious side dish. A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dish is picked beet egg. Hard-boiled eggs are refrigerated in the liquid left over from pickling beets and allowed to marinate until the eggs turn a deep pink-red colour. In Poland and Ukraine, beet is combined with horseradish to form popular cwilka. This is traditionally used with cold cuts and sandwiches or added to a meal consisting of meat and potatoes. In Serbia cvekla is used as a winter salad, seasoned with salt and vinegar, alongside meat dishes. As an addition to horseradish it is also used to produce the “red” variety of chrain, a popular condiment in Eastern European cuisine. A slice of pickled beetroot is combined with other condiments on a beef patty to make an Aussie burger. When beet juice is used, it is most stable in foods with a low water content, such as frozen novelties and fruit fillings. Beatnins, obtained from the roots, are used industrially as red food colouring e.g. to intensify the colour of tomato paste, sauces, desserts, jams and jellies, ice cream, sweets, and breakfast cereals.
Oldest archeological proofs that we used beetroot in ancient times were found on the Neolithic site of Aartswoud in the Netherlands and in Saqqara pyramid at Thebes, Egypt, which dates from third millennium BC. There are Assyrian texts that say that beetroots were growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 800 BC. We can be positive that Mesopotamia knew about beetroots at that time because of these texts. Ancient Greeks cultivated beetroot around 300 BC but didn’t use the roots of the plants, only eating the leaves. They still respected the root and offered it to the sun god, Apollo, in the temple of Delphi and also considered it to be worth its weight in silver. Hippocrates used leaves of beetroot for binding and dressing wounds while Talmud, written in 4th and 5th century, advises eating beetroot, among other things, for longer life. Romans ate the roots but mainly for medicinal purposes. They used it as a laxative or to cure fever. Some used it as food as Apicius, the famous Roman gourmet, wrote a book called “The Art of Cooking” and in it gave recipes with beetroots used in broths and salads with mustard, oil, and vinegar. The root part of the beet was cultivated for consumption in either Germany or Italy, first recorded in 1542. The Elizabethans enjoyed them in tarts and stews. Medieval cooks stuffed them into pies. All these uses were an old variant of beetroot which was long and thin like a parsnip. This variety is thought to have evolved from a prehistoric North African root vegetable. The one that we know today appeared in the 16th and 17th century in Europe. It needed a few hundred years more to become popular in Central and Eastern Europe where new cuisines with beetroot started appearing. In 1747 a chemist from Berlin discovered a way to produce sucrose from beets. His student, Franz Achard, perfected this method for extracting sugar, leading him to predict the inevitable rise of beet beer, tobacco and molasses, among other products. The King of Prussia subsidized a sugar beet industry. The first plant was built in what is now western Poland. Today, around 20 percent of the world’s sugar comes from sugar beets. Beet sugar production requires 4 times less water than sugar cane production, making it an attractive crop throughout Europe. In Victorian times, beetroot was used to bring color to an otherwise colorless diet and as a sweet ingredient in desserts. Industrialisation allowed for easier preparation and conservation of vegetables, so beetroot became more available. The rosy betalain-rich juice of red beets was used as a cheek and lip stain by women during the 19th century, a practice that inspired the old adage “red as a beet.” Food shortages in Europe following World War One caused illnesses, including cases of mangel-wurzel disease. It was symptomatic of eating only beets. After the Second World War, because of the rations in some places, the most available vegetable was pickled beetroot in jars.
The beet greens (leaves) are also edible. The young leaves can be eaten raw as part of a leafy salad whilst the older ones are better boiled or steamed, like cooked spinach. I find that the leaves are very strong tasting and don’t particularly like them. But my poultry love them. Do not cut the leaves, but twist them off to prevent the colour ‘bleeding’.
Many complain that beets have an “earthy” taste, which isn’t far off the mark. Beets contain a substance called geosmin, which is responsible for that fresh soil scent in your garden following a spring rain. Humans are quite sensitive to geosmin, even in very low doses, which explains why our beet response ranges from one extreme to the other.
They are rich in antioxidants, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. They also contain unique antioxidants called betalains, which are currently being studied as a potential weapon in the fight against cancer. Beetroot can lower blood pressure and may increase blood flows to the brain thereby preventing dementia. A 2010 study carried out by Queen Mary’s University in London found that drinking just one 250ml glass of beetroot juice a day dramatically lowered blood pressure for several hours. Nitrates lower blood pressure because bacteria in the mouth and gut convert it into the gas nitric oxide, which relaxes and widens the blood vessels, allowing blood to circulate more freely. Tests were conducted to see if beetroot would effect athlete’s performances. Athletes could run faster after drinking beetroot juice and cyclists racing in high altitudes had quicker finishing times, averagely 16 seconds quicker after drinking beetroot juice too. Betacyanin, the pigment that gives beetroot its rich hue, is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to possess anti-cancer properties. In 2011, a study carried out by Howard University in Washington, USA, found that betacyanin slowed tumour growth by 12.5 per cent when exposed to prostate and breast cancer cells. I remember reading an interview a while ago in the Telegraph about tennis player Ross Hutchins who suffered from a variety of cancer. He had beetroot and orange juice every morning and evening. ‘Even when I was feeling really ill, I made sure I nailed eight beetroots a day,’ he says. The red colour compound beatnin is not broken down in the body, and in higher concentrations may temporarily cause urine or stools to assume a reddish colour, in the case of urine a condition called beeturia.
I really didn’t like beetroot. I really intensely disliked it. The first time I got myself to like beetroot was when it was grated with a leafy green salad alongside a baked potato with cheese and baked beans. I had to finish everything on my plate, including the beetroot, but surprisingly, I actually came round to it. It was ok grated into tiny pieces, not so earthy and overpowering. I was pretty happy as it meant I could grow it in the garden and actually eat it. They didn’t convert me into a radish or fennel fan, but beetroot was good enough. I have been harvesting my two year old beetroots and enjoying them at last.
Sprinkle grated beetroot over mashed avocado on toast, it looks beautiful. Another thing I like is grated beetroot sprinkled on top of toast that has been covered with butter and a poached egg yolk (I don’t like egg whites. I’m sorry I’m so fussy…).