History of Beetroot
Beetroot, botanically-known as Beta vulgaris, evolved from wild seabeet, which is a native of coastlines from India to Britain and is the ancestor of all cultivated forms of beet. Sea beet was first domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East – although it was only the leaves that were eaten at that time.
Beetroot was offered to Apollo in his temple at Delphi, where it was reckoned to be worth its own weight in silver! The Romans began to cultivate it in earnest, and early recipes included cooking it with honey and wine. Apicius, the renowned Roman gourmet, included beetroot in recipes for broths and even recommended making it into a salad with a dressing of mustard, oil and vinegar in his book ‘The Art of Cooking’.
In early times, the medicinal properties of the root were more important than its eating qualities and it was used to treat a range of ailments including fevers, constipation, wounds and various skin problems. At that time, the roots were long and thin like a carrot. The rounded root shape that we are familiar with today was not developed until the sixteenth century and became widely popular in Central and Eastern Europe 200 years later. Many classic beetroot dishes originated in this region including the famous beetroot soup, known as borscht.
Beetroot continued to grow in popularity in Victorian times, when its dramatic colour brightened up salads and soups. It was also used as a sweet ingredient in cakes and puddings. A wide range of varieties was available, including “Rouge Crapaudine” and “Mr Crosby’s Egyptian”. The plants were even used as decorative bedding because of their attractive green leaves. At this time, beetroot was still mainly grown as a winter root vegetable. More recently smaller, more tender, ‘baby’ summer-grown beetroots have been developed.
After World War II, pickled beetroot in jars was the most widely available form of the vegetable but the vinegars could be strong and harsh - enough to put many people off beetroot for life!
Beetroots come in all shapes and sizes but the most common is round and deep red in colour. Other varieties are yellow, white, and even candy-striped (with red and white concentric circles). The humble beetroot is sweet, earthy and tender to eat and related to the turnip, swede and sugar beet.