One of the best things on TV recently has been the second series of Great British Food Revival (BBC2). The series aims to promote underappreciated British vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and shellfish, in order to try and change the public’s perception of these foods. This is needed to reverse often alarming declines in their production, with serious implications for British farming and food culture.
Different chefs have championed different foods. Highlights of the series so far have included John Torode on beef from heritage breeds, Valentine Warner on cockles and mussels, Raymond Blanc on plums, Richard Corrigan on mackerel, Michael Roux Jr on bread and on pears, and the Hairy Bikers (yes, really) enthusing about cauliflowers. With its farm-to-fork emphasis on seasonality, local produce and traditional cooking, this is my kind of cookery show.
Last night, Antonio Carluccio was promoting beetroot. I had been aware of this program since July when I briefly corresponded with Assistant Producer Isaure de Pontbriand, who was using my e-book Beetroot (2004) for research. We agreed that getting production statistics for this crop is very difficult. I think more is probably grown on allotments and in gardens than is produced commercially. They reckoned that beetroot accounts for just 1% of vegetables grown in Britain.
For those who missed it (or saw it and would welcome a summary), Antonio Carluccio started by roasting a large beetroot in embers and relating the type of statistics that have become all-to-familiar during this series. Half of all British beetroot fields have been lost in the past 30 years. In the case of beetroot, the post-war trend to preserve it in cheap heavy vinegar has seriously damaged the crop’s reputation.
Antonio talked to beetroot supplier Graham Forber and the general farm manager of Riverford Organics James McGregor, who both agreed that beetroot still has an image problem to overcome. At the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, Head Gardener Nicola Bradley introduced us to some heritage varieties, showing the diversity of beetroot. They can be cylindrical or globular, and range in colour from purple to red, orange and white.
The health benefits of beetroot were illustrated using recent research at Exeter University showing that beetroot juice significantly enhanced exercise performance. This research is new to me, and I would like to read a bit more about it. I know that discussing the health benefits was the hardest part of writing Beetroot, because there is so much flaky stuff out there. The general health benefits of consuming beetroot are not in doubt, however. If Team Britain does consume concentrated shots of beetroot juice as a “secret weapon” (oops!), then they should probably be warned about beeturia (that’s red pee, to you and me).
Interspersed with his peripatetic wanderings, Carluccio cooked a three-course meal using beetroot: A Beetroot Soufflé with Anchovy Sauce, a Timbale of Beetroot (white sauce, ham, leeks and cheese), and a Panna Cotta Dessert with lime syrup and beetroot.
Simon Hulstone, the Michelin-starred head chef at The Elephant in Torquay, likes to cook with beetroot. His Beets and Curds features a range of heritage beetroot varieties, including Chioggia (white with red stripes), Golden, a white variety (possibly Albina Vereduna), and a dusting of red beetroot powder. The heritage varieties are all grown especially for him by a local farmer. The dish looks great and I’ll certainly be ordering it if I ever find myself in Torquay.
This was another excellent edition of Great British Food Revival.
I am currently harvesting beetroot from a deep bed in my Welsh garden. My personal preference is for the cylindrical varieties (which actually predate the globe ones), with Forono being my favourite. At the time of writing Beetroot (2004), I had an allotment in Stevenage, England, where I grew a range of modern and heritage varieties. You can see photos of them in the final section of the e-book, which comprises a dictionary of cultivated varieties (The photos included here are of the heritage variety Bull’s Blood).
Dictionary of Beetroot Varieties: