This wonderful rendition of the oft overlooked beetroot is by Bonnie Lalley and is the second in a series of joint ventures between us. I was brought up on pickled beetroot and it accompanied so many dishes in our house, from my mother’s succulent steak and mushroom pie to Lancashire Hot Pot to more frugal suppers of cheese or pork pie. It added an often much needed splash of colour to some otherwise overcast meals. Its deep scarlet hue always made me feel that here was something exotic in deepest, darkest Manchester – and yet it grew on all the allotments around without me then realising.
It is related to the splendidly named mangel-wurzel, used for animal feed, and the flavoursome veg, chard. And this root of joy has been around since the Greeks – Theophrastus referred to the cultivation of it 300 years before the birth of Christ in his botanical writings. It is descended from sea beet, a wild seashore plant, which grows around the shores of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe and North Africa.
In the 16th century it was referred to as Beta Roman in cookery writing. In 1699, it was said that thin red slices of the boiled red beetroot were ‘ a grateful winter Sallet.’ In the same tome, by John Evelyn – ‘A Discourse on Sallets’, he noted that it was ‘by the French and Italians contriv’d into curious figures to adorn their Sallets.‘ Now there’s a challenge for you all!
The luxuriant deep purply red colour is due to the mixture of a purple pigment, betacyanin, and a yellow one, betaxanthin. And it stains incredibly well, as my mother used to remind me over and over again, lest I ever spilt any on her newly ironed tablecloth!
The leaves of this root – beetroot tops – are also now used more and more in salads and they are both a thing of beauty and also very, very tasty. They are also stuffed full of marvellous minerals and vitamins. Beetroot is a great source of fibre and folic acid. Olympians drink gallons of beetroot juice I am told.
This is truly one adorable vegetable. And Bonnie’s painting captures the royalty wrapped up in this remarkable root.
And so to finish – a recipe that shows it off to its best.
Roast Beetroot with Goat’s Cheese & Balsamic Vinegar
12 baby beetroots or 6 larger chaps
Sea salt and black pepper
Olive oil – the best you have
175 gm goat’s cheese
Handful of beetroot leaves – small ones
A good portion of rocket leaves
Bring your oven up to 230c. Wrap the beets in foil and roast for about 45 minutes to an hour for large ones – or 30 minutes for baby beets. In any case they need to be soft enough for a knife to go through them easily.
Once they have cooled rub the skins off and either keep whole if small or halve then or quarter the big ones if using. Toss in the olive oil.
Scatter your rocket and beetroot leaves on a serving plate.
Arrange the warmed beetroot on the leaves and drizzle with balsamic vinegar and a little more olive oil. Pop a slice of goat’s cheese by each piece of beetroot and grind over some sea salt and black pepper.
Serve with more balsamic vinegar to taste and warm crusty bread.
Nothing vulgar about beta vulgaris.
It is the Queen of the root world.