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Beet Crazy

Sandra Lawrence uncovers a whole new aspect of this maligned vegetable   

Beetroot? It’s a bit – well - prosaic, isn’t it?  

Beetroot certainly divides the world – you love it or hate it. For those who love it, its sweet, earthy tones are equally good in crunchy salads and sharp pickles. It is the base ingredient of Eastern Europe ’s favourite soup, Borscht, is also obligatory with every French dish of crudites, and happens to be 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 is usually down to traumatic childhood experiences of cold, fat slabs of dark, bleeding flesh dumped unceremoniously from a giant catering tin on to what was a perfectly good school dinner.

I suppose it’s good for you?  

 

Like so many things that 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 it 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 against tropical disease for years. Jewish Talmud medicine recommends “eating beetroot, drinking mead and bathing in the Euphrates .”  

How old is beetroot?  

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 that beets were second only to horseradish in mystic potency, and Aphrodite apparently ate beetroots to retain her famed beauty.  

Surely beetroot isn’t actually sacred?  

“In Oceanic mythologies, the universe is pictured as a giant beetroot, hollow on the inside,” says folklorist Peter Ramsay. Ramsay is particularly fond of one Norse myth where 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 entire batch, 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 that beets are roughly the same colour and shape as the organ of love, the heart. Beets have traditionally been used as one of the classic dyes – both in textiles and to colour hens’ eggs at Easter.  

It was the Romans who first cultivated the beetroots we know today (Beta Vulgaris.) Early Christians helped to spread the popularity of the beet and by the 16th Century it 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 that the French and Italians carved their beetroots into curious shapes.  

Does beetroot only come in red?

Not at all – though the classic red is still the most popular. Golden beetroot is becoming easier to find, and for those interested in growing their own, newly-available varieties include the delightfully striped “Chioggia” from the Venice region of Italy. “It’s not new though,” 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 bleeding,” advises Arrigo.  

Is beetroot easy to grow?  

Yes – plant the seed in April – classic varieties include Wodan and Warrior - or experiment with some of the more unusual kinds such as Detroit 2 or Choggia. To avoid gluts, plant in batches. They can be container-grown – choose the largest one available. Adding a little salt to the soil reminds the plant of its maritime ancestors.  

Can you eat the leaves?  

Yes – treat them like spinach. They are a close relative to chard. Other beetroot family members include sugar beet and the roots grown mainly as animal fodder – mangle wurzels.  

What is the traditional way to eat beetroot?  

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, beetroot can be eaten raw – grated – but more often it is steamed or boiled then eaten cold with salads or meats.  

When buying, make sure roots are small and not too woody – 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.

So how is beetroot being used today?

The classic pickle-in-a-jar is as popular as ever – it is still Baxter’s top-selling line. But chefs 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, beets whizzed with carrots in health juices and roasted with more exotic ingredients such as ginger, lime and mint. 

It is generally agreed that 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, of the Fat Duck at Bray, famous for his daring use of contrasting flavours, has recently been 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 been using beetroots in petit-fours. He is only too aware of people’s prejudices about beetroots. “We had someone come in the other day and 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.  

Finally, will it go with the Christmas turkey? Those small roasted ones would be a nice contrast to the sprouts and blend with the red cabbage. And the pickled variety would jazz up all that leftover cold turkey.   

But what about those stains?  

My sister recently admitted that 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.

 


 

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