Continuing our series of blog posts on Food Down the Ages, we have a look at the little appreciated beetroot.

Beetroot, botanically-known as Beta vulgaris, evolved from wild seabeet, which is a native of coastlines from India to Britain and is the ancestor of all cultivated forms of beet. Beetroot was offered to Apollo in his temple at Delphi, where it was reckoned to be worth its own weight in silver! Sea beet was first domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East – although it was only the leaves that were eaten at that time.

BeetrootBeetroot was offered to Apollo in his temple at Delphi, where it was reckoned to be worth its own weight in silver! The Romans began to cultivate it in earnest, and early recipes included cooking it with honey and wine. Apicius, the renowned Roman gourmet, included beetroot in recipes for broths and even recommended making it into a salad with a dressing of mustard, oil and vinegar in his book ‘The Art of Cooking’.

In early times, the medicinal properties of the root were more important than its eating qualities and it was used to treat a range of ailments including fevers, constipation, wounds and various skin problems. At that time, the roots were long and thin like a carrot. The rounded root shape that we are familiar with today was not developed until the sixteenth century in Italy and became widely popular in Central and Eastern Europe 200 years later. Many classic beetroot dishes originated in this region including the famous beetroot soup, known as borscht. In Poland, beetroot was served at the table of King Wladislav Jagiello (XV c) from which time it belongs to one of most popular vegetables in Poland.

Beetroot continued to grow in popularity in Victorian times, when its dramatic colour brightened up salads and soups. It was also used as a sweet ingredient in cakes and puddings. A wide range of varieties was available, including “Rouge Crapaudine” and “Mr Crosby’s Egyptian”. The plants were even used as decorative bedding because of their attractive green leaves. At this time, beetroot was still mainly grown as a winter root vegetable. More recently smaller, tenderer, ‘baby’ summer-grown beetroots have been developed.

After World War II, pickled beetroot in jars was the most widely available form of the vegetable but the vinegars could be strong and harsh – enough to put many people off beetroot for life!

Beetroots come in all shapes and sizes but the most common is round and deep red in colour. Other varieties are yellow, white, and even candy-striped (with red and white concentric circles). The humble beetroot is sweet, earthy and tender to eat and related to the turnip, swede and sugar beet.

Its colour is depending on the high content of antioxidants which are highly important in our fight with cancer. The Vitamin B1 and C exists in beetroot in small percentage. They contain about 10% of sugar, up to 2% of protein and high number of minerals.

In 100g of beetroot we can find: 300mg of potassium, 84mg of sodium, 25mg of calcium, 15mg of magnesium, 3.2mg of phosphorus, 0.4mg of iron and zinc.

Thanks to its elements content they are very helpful in a diet after chemotherapy or to help against anaemia, haemophilia, leukaemia or avitaminosis.