© Copyright: Stephen Nottingham 2004
This book is about an extraordinarily useful plant called Beta vulgaris. In particular, it concerns one of this plant's cultivated forms: beetroot (beet, table or garden beet). The other cultivated forms of Beta vulgaris are leaf beets (spinach beet and Swiss chard), fodder beet, and sugar beet.
Wild sea beet is the ancestor of all cultivated beets. It grows in coastal areas in Europe, North Africa and Asia. The leaves of sea beet have probably been consumed since prehistoric times in Europe. Beta vulgaris was first domesticated for its leaves and leaf stems (petioles). Cultivated leaf beets were eaten throughout ancient times. The Greeks described colourful chards, a special type of leaf beet with elongated, broad and fleshy leaf midribs and petioles. In Roman times, chard was called beta.
The Romans were the first to take an interest in the root of Beta vulgaris, which they utilized for their medicinal properties. It was not until the sixteenth century that beetroot became known as a root vegetable. A wide range of beetroot cultivars were bred from that time onwards. The cultivation of beet for sugar production started at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Today, around half the world’s sugar is obtained from sugar beet. Chapter Two is about beets in time, tracing the history of cultivated Beta vulgaris from ancient times to the present day.
The classification of Beta vulgaris is the subject of Chapter Three. Within the taxonomic system of binomial nomenclature, established by Linnaeus, cultivated beets are currently considered to be within the subspecies Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris, while ancestral sea beet is considered as Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima. The different cultivated forms of beet are considered as distinct varieties. A complementary horticultural scheme, however, is usually applied for within-species (infraspecific) classification of beets. This scheme uses the concepts of cultivar and cultivar group.
The botany of Beta vulgaris is also considered in Chapter Three. Beetroot is a biennial plant grown as an annual for its storage root. Disparities between commonly used and botanical terms are clarified. Beetroot seed, for instance, is technically a fruit containing several true seeds.
The cultivation of Beta vulgaris is described in Chapter Four, with an emphasis on beetroot in gardens and allotments. From sowing seed to harvest and storage, each stage of cultivation is considered. Problems due to bolting (going to seed) and from pests and diseases are described, while ideal growing conditions are discussed. The chapter concludes with a look at biotechnology, considering genetically-modified sugar beet and how beet cultivation may be further modified in the future.
The characteristic colour of beetroot is investigated in Chapter Five. The pigments in beetroot, the betalains, are restricted in distribution. Therefore, beetroot has a distinct value as a dye source and for the health benefits arising from compounds related to these pigments. Beetroot red or betanin is extracted from beet roots on an industrial scale for use in food products (E162 in Europe), while beetroot colouring has been used as a dye since the sixteenth century. Betalains are usually taken up efficiently and processed in the human body. However, some people excrete red-coloured urine after eating beetroot, due to an inability to breakdown betanin - a condition called beeturia.
The composition of Beta vulgaris, with respect to its health and nutritional value, forms the basis of Chapter Six. Beta vulgaris has been considered a medicinal plant since ancient times, while the seventeenth-century herbalists ascribed many beneficial effects to its leaves and roots. Scientific research is confirming some of the benefits derived from beetroot, although other claims for it have to be regarded as 'old wives tales'. Beetroot juice has been advocated as a stimulant for the immune system and as a cancer preventative.
Chapter Six concludes on a lighter note with a section on beetroot and sex. Although long associated with rude good health, from its depiction in Pompeii’s brothels to Montgomery exhorting his troops to “find favours in the beetroot fields", do beetroot’s aphrodisiac properties really stand up?
The myriad uses of Beta vulgaris in the kitchen are related in Chapter Seven. Descriptions of dishes are given in an historical and cultural context. The first section looks at cooking with beet leaves and chard. Spinach beet (perpetual spinach) can be cooked like spinach, for instance, while Swiss chard is good steamed and covered in sauce.
Beetroot has been a staple winter root vegetable in Central and Eastern Europe for centuries. Many of the classic beetroot dishes originated in this region, including the most famous beetroot soup called borsch. Ukrainian borsch is described in this chapter, along with the side dishes that traditionally accompany it. The production of smaller globe-shaped beetroot varieties in North America and Western Europe led to beetroot’s increasing importance as a summer salad crop.
The different ways that beetroot are used in salads, as a hot vegetable to accompany meat and fish, and in pies, risottos and gratins are described here, in addition to methods for their preservation such as pickling. Beetroot juice is common in health drinks and it makes a good wine. Beetroot has enjoyed a revival in recent years in Europe and items on fashionable restaurant menus are noted throughout this chapter. A new generation of chefs has revived and updated traditional recipes, and in the process found new ways of using beetroot.
Beetroot is one of the most commonly grown crops in gardens and allotments, and there are numerous cultivars to choose from. Chapter Eight takes the form of a dictionary of cultivated varieties. It lists all the cultivars encountered in popular seed catalogues, and a range of heritage varieties obtainable from specialist suppliers. For each cultivar, information on history, size and shape, colour, resistance to bolting and disease, eating properties, and other characteristics are given. Additional information will continually be added, including photos and tasting notes based on my experience of growing and cooking a wide range of beetroot cultivars from my allotment in Stevenage, England.
© Copyright Stephen Nottingham, 2004
August 2004 SFN.