Although they have only recently gained popularity, beets (more specifically, “beetroots” – as they are more commonly referred to as in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Britain) have been around for centuries.
Even though it is basically a root, once you pull it out, you will see why it has been a favorite of many countries and different cultures. The beet is somewhat our connection to the earth as it gives us a taste of what good soil and good practices can become.
The beet is an ancient favorite vegetable because it has been known to have qualities that help in regulating blood pressure and the more popular, aphrodisiac quality (albeit not scientifically proven as of yet).
The modern beet has a wild forerunner, the sea beet, that is actually not a sweet vegetable like most of its descendants. It is simply a green mass of leaves with a basic white-yellowish beetroot. It can be found usually on the beaches as they grow on the tide lines of the oceans and seas.
The sea beet is very populous on the Mediterranean coast all the way along the Corsican coast. It has very distinctive features such as a very glossy deep green color, leaves that are shaped like hearts, and the natural tendencies of sea beets are to grow in bunches together.
The beets that we know today have uniquely different root qualities than the sea beet. They are darker in colors (usually red), denser flesh, and generally a larger root diameter.
One interesting thing to note is that even though we think of the beetroot as naturally red-colored, that has not been always so. The red-color characteristic of the beetroot was actually bred and cultured to specifically produce that kind of pigmentation in the mid-18th century.
The Swiss chard is one of the more familiar cultivars of beta vulgaris. The Swiss chard is very useful as they are good yielding and can easily be acquired at any time of the year. Their main uses are its large green leaves that have a unique red, white, or rainbow-colored ribs.
There are other beet greens that are similar in taste to the Swiss chard, however, these have been cultured to focus the nutrients and taste to the roots as opposed to focusing on the leaves. The Chard’s seemingly particular texture and seemingly “for health” taste is very exclusive to this kind of cultivar.
People who have tried beets, whether raw or cooked, can confirm its earthly flavors and mineral qualities. Some might find the red beets too vivid for them, the could do well with the lighter colored cultivars or the yellow ones which offer good alternatives. Some lighter tasting samples would be the Chioggia and the Golden Detroit beets.
Beets are also very famous for their different levels of sweet taste. Many countries have connected beets to affect love and romance. One culture has stated that if a male and a female take a bite from the same beet, they will fall heads over heels for each other.
In ancient Rome, as well as ancient Greece, the beet’s aphrodisiac elements were very famous. So much so that in prostitution houses and dens, symbols of beets were hung on the doorways and inside the houses. The beet is a symbol of love, libido, and even affluence. People offered beets as sacrifices to the god Apollo to guarantee them good fortune.
These modern times, those beliefs might still exist in some parts of the world, but now beets are used as food accents and are consumed for their nutritional values as well as sweetening qualities. They help supplement the “green leafy” industry, especially during springtime as most other greens become bitter at this time of the year.
Commonly, there are three main types of beets in the agriculture industry. The first one is the sugar beet. It was developed in the 1740s in Poland and was cultured to aid in the production of, well, sugar. They did this because, in those days, most of the sugar supply to Europe came from the British colonies in the Carribean.
The sugar beet got a big exposure when Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed a ban of sugar from other countries in 1813; this forced the growing and processing of sugar to be done locally.
Today, the culturing of sugar beets to help the sugar industry is going strong, mainly in the United States and Europe. In fact, Russia alone is producing 1/6th of all the world’s sugar beets. In America, they are generally produced in the Midwest.
Amazingly, sugar beets produce 20-30% of the world’s sugar. The sugar beet agriculture industry in the US increased exponentially when it declared an embargo with Cuba which was the main supplier of sugar to the US.
The next type of beet is the forage beet (mangelwurzel which means “root beet”). These are not for the regular cookbooks. They are grown as feed for livestock. They are usually grown and then left out for the livestock to feed on them or harvested and manually fed to the livestock during the winter season.
This type of beet is an endangered type as modern technology has produced more feeding alternatives which are easier to grown and culture. These beets can be grown to as big as 15 pounds but need lots of good soil and space to be effective, hence not every economical.
Then we get to the last and definitely most famous type of beet, the garden beets. These are the more familiar reddish-colored roots. However, as you probably are aware, it is not pure red, there are many shades of red, others are pink, and even some are yellowish.
Garden beets also come in many different shapes and sizes; and depending on the personalized individual needs, there is something for everything. There are the perfect rounds, to the cylindrical, to the half-round and half-flat.
They can also be used for almost all types of food—eating them fresh and raw, light or heavy roasting, pickling, and many other ways you can think of relishing them.
The uses of beets also extend to more than just purely as food consumption. They can be used to be sweeteners for certain foods, they can be utilized as a food coloring (think tomato sauce), and can even be used to dye.
Beets are very useful in countless numbers of ways. All you have to do is research what you need to cook or prepare and it would almost be a guarantee that some kind of beet would help enhance the experience—red-stained fingers, notwithstanding.