Beetroot – the beginner’s veggie!
Beets are plants in the genus Beta, of which there are many species some of which are important food plants. Beetroot is the common name for the varieties that are grown primarily for their bulbous tap root, it is also the name of the edible root portion. The Latin name is Beta vulgaris ssp vulgaris and is in the Family Amaranthaceae. The varieties where the main edible part is the foliage are called Chard.
Beetroots are grown and eaten across all of Europe, India, USA and Australasia. They are eaten raw, baked, boiled, pickled, as a relish or as a soup. The range and styles of how they are used is only limited by the imagination. Here in Australia we love tinned beetroot as a salad item. A salad sandwich or burger with the lot is just not right without a large slice of beetroot. However the flavour of pickled beetroot is miles away from that of roasted beet or grated in a salad.
As with so many plants that are part of our ‘modern’ diet, beets (the whole group of edible Beta vulgaris cultivars) go back to long before written history. The species itself evolved around the Mediterranean and across the Middle East and into southern and western Asia. The original wild plant is still around and has the common name of Sea Beet – Beta vulgaris ssp maritima. It is a tall, green plant that loves full sun and is very salt tolerant. The leaves have been a part of human diet since the dawn of time and are still eaten now.
From the original plant it is presumed that the current plant, Beta vulgaris ssp vulgaris evolved and it was first recorded in 800 BC as being grown in the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It has also been recorded as one of the plant offerings to the Greek gods, specifically the sun god Apollo. From the early drawings and literature it seems the plant was originally grown for its leaves. At some stage the root also became a popular food item with the Romans preferring the root to the leaves. The modern varieties of Chard are descendant from the leaf forms. The strong, thick midribs were as an important part of the diet then as they are now. It is also felt that the colour ranges of the leaves then are similar to what we now have.
The original plants had small dark roots like underdeveloped carrots. These then developed into ruby coloured parsnip shaped roots – probably by targeted selection and growing. It is from these varieties that the deep ruby coloured globes we now associate with beetroot evolved. Since then we have selected a range of colour forms and even some odd shapes. There are several selections of deep red from around the world and the second most popular form is the deep golden coloured bulb. There are several cultivars of which the most common one is Burpees Golden. The candy striped (pink and red rings) is also appearing in garden centres and even the odd green grocer. This variety is an Italian selection called Chioggia. Some of the rare forms that are popping up now include two white forms called Snowwhite and Snowball and long forms like Cheltenham Mono and the French selection, Crapaudine.
There is some debate on when the beetroot first hit western diets. It would appear that this occurred with Roman settlements in the first century AD. They were collectors and breeders of many early plants. Again, like so many plants they were used as much for their medicinal properties as their culinary flavours. It can be hard to trace back this far as the Roman cooks didn’t have a library of cookery books in the early kitchens. So it is a matter or reading through some of the ancient texts to find when they were first described as food items. It is known that around 1000AD beetroot was a popular food item in both Asia, Central Europe and due to its preference for cooler growing conditions, Scandinavia and northern Europe. During the 15th to 17th century beetroot moved into the mainstream diet of most European countries and was being recognised as a sweet and healthy root vegetable.
During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries beetroot have moved across the world and more and more recipes are being developed using this most colourful and tasty vegetable. The leaves are regularly used in salads, stirfries and even steamed as a vegetable in their own right. Over the last ten years they have even become one of the more trendy varieties. Where as we used to have baked beetroot, boiled baby beets and sliced pickled beetroot we now have grated beet root with mango and feta, betroot and goat’s cheese tart and even a beetroot and chocolate brownie. Beetroot soup is appearing on many menus, from the traditional Ukrainian Borscht to the spicy Beetroot, coconut, ginger and chilli soup. Again, just imagine and do, but do not make beetroot soup from canned beetroot – it is just hot red vinegar.
Finally beetroot is a really healthy vegetable with masses of antioxidants to help keep the body radical free. It is low in energy with around 130 kilojoules per 100gm of plain cooked beetroot. The leaves are very high in vitamins A and C plus good levels of Iron and Calcium. The root is high in the amino acid, glutamine which is essential for an healthy intestine, high in nitrates which improve blood flow, rich in boron and folic acids.
They are very easy to grow responding well to cool weather and part to full sun. They prefer a good rich soil that is not too high in nitrogen. They need to be kept moist but not wet and should be harvested about 7 weeks. The shoulder of the beet will appear at the top of the soil and should be harvested at the desired size, either small and sweet or slightly larger. What more can you want in a vegetable, great flavour, really good health benefits and able to grow in almost any home garden.