Heirloom Table Beets

Relish the history behind these rare, earthy, and (usually) ruby-colored edible roots.


| Summer 2017



Catalogue

Because they're easily stored over winter, beets have been a cellar staple in North America since the colonial period.

Illustration courtesy Flickr/USDA National Agricultural Library

Because they’re easily stored over winter, beets have been a cellar staple in North America since the colonial period. From the end of January through the middle of March, when most stored vegetables had been eaten up but planting hadn’t yet begun, the sprouts from beets in cold storage were especially valued. Today, we’re not so pressed by these seasonal times of stress, but with a little planning, the kitchen gardener can maintain a well-supplied cellar and not rely so heavily on store-bought food.

Beets (Beta vulgaris spp.) are native to the coastal areas of much of Western Europe and the Mediterranean. They were first gathered from the wild as a forage crop, mostly for their spring greens, and then later brought under cultivation. Archaeological evidence reveals that they were grown in Northern Europe as early as 2000 B.C. by the Celts, long before the Romans entered the region. 

The common garden beet has been perfected over the centuries to achieve a smooth, rounded shape and small leaves. Small leaves mean that more plants can be crowded together in a limited space, a feature important to kitchen gardeners. The ‘Bassano,’ or ‘Chioggia,’ beet may be considered a standard for this class. Turnip beets aren’t much different except for their large leaves and exceptionally large roots, which are usually coarse in texture even after prolonged cooking.

‘Bassano’ or ‘Chioggia’ beet

I first encountered this Italian heirloom in an open market in Castelfranco Veneto many years ago. Several country women were selling it under the name barbabietola di ‘Chioggia. Chioggia is a romantic fishing town south of Venice on the Adriatic coast, where Venetians flee to escape tourists and relish real Venetian home cooking. For this reason, the ‘Chioggia’ beet has long been a symbol of authentic Venetian cuisine and culture, and its name has gradually crept into the horticultural vocabulary of Italian gardeners as a stamp of culinary correctness. I mention this only to point out that the salt marshes of Chioggia didn’t produce this beet; in fact, it was originally called the barbabietola di ‘Bassano’ after the Venetian hill town famous for its grappa. The original ‘Bassano’ beet was flatter on the bottom than the present-day ‘Chioggia,’ and the skin was a duller red where it touched the soil, but otherwise they’re the same beet.

A gardening almanac, Le Bon Jardinier (1841), described the introduction of the ‘Bassano’ beet into France from Italy, where it was already well-known in most of the northern parts of the country. Charles Hovey’s The Magazine of Horticulture (1843) brought this beet to the attention of American gardeners. However, it wasn’t until the late 1840s that ‘Bassano’ was cultivated to any extent in the United States, and even then it was grown mostly as a specialty beet for urban buyers. There seems to have been some initial resistance to it because it wasn’t a true red, which people preferred for pickles.

The root of ‘Bassano’ is flattened, like a turnip. The skin is bright crimson red, and when sliced, the interior reveals white flesh veined with rose rings. The mature beets measure 2 to 2-1/2 inches in diameter and are very delicate when cooked. The baby beets are also quite delightful. They’re so tender that they can be eaten raw or, if somewhat larger, after the merest blush of steam.





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