Healthy, hardworking and humble, beetroot has been with us for thousands of years and has a myriad of uses
The beetroot, Beta vulgaris, evolved from the wild sea beet, found along coastlines from Britain to India. Its botanical name Beta comes from the Celtic 'bett' meaning 'red'. Beetroot is really a biennial, but is grown as an annual, both for its bulbous roots and leaves. It does best in well-drained, fertile soils.
Sea beet first became domesticated in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East. The ancient Greeks and Romans ate the leaves and used these and the roots medicinally. Hippocrates bound wounds with beetroot leaves, and the plants were also used to treat fevers, skin conditions and constipation. The Romans regarded beetroot as an aphrodisiac, as they did almost anything edible! Early Roman recipes suggest cooking the leaves with wine and honey.
An Assyrian text of around 800BC describes beetroot growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
By the 16th century, the roots, originally rather thin and carrot-like, had become more bulbous and were being eaten. Beetroot became especially popular in central and eastern Europe, where many classic dishes such as the famous borscht soup evolved.
Delia speaks out
In her introduction to a recipe for Polish beetroot soup at her website Delia Smith says "Beetroot is either loved or hated - mostly the latter I suspect because in this country people have a surfeit of it doused in strong vinegar. But its lovers know of its earthy charm and delicious, but distinctive flavour".
In Victorian Britain, the roots were added to sweet dishes such as cakes and puddings, in addition to their savoury uses in soups and salads. The Victorians also used beetroot juice as a hair dye. Today beetroot juice is sometimes added to strawberry jam, tomato paste and ice cream to improve their colour. Beetroot is one of the sweetest vegetables, often with a 10 per cent level of sugar, which it releases gradually into the body.
Beets on the street
Entrepreneur Alan (Lord) Sugar started earning money at an early age. He once told the Daily Mirror "And by 11, I had loads of enterprises on the go – including beetroot-boiling! At 7am on Saturday I’d turn up at Charlton’s greengrocers where I’d get a small metal bath, place it on the gas ring, half fill the bath with water and chuck in a sack of raw beetroot".
Beetroot contains betaine, a substance which relaxes the mind, and is used in other forms to treat depression. It also contains trytophan, which is also found in chocolate and is believed to promote a sense of wellbeing. Recent claims suggest beetroot may help to lower blood pressure and to help prevent dementia. Beetroot is a good source of iron and folate – naturally occurring folic acid.