Relish the history behind these rare, earthy, and (usually) ruby-colored edible roots.
Because they're easily stored over winter, beets have been a cellar staple in North America since the colonial period.
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.
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.
In Italy, ‘Bassano’ beets come to market in June because they can be planted in late winter and develop during the cool, moist weather that characterizes northern Italy that time of the year. Here, we must plant them in early spring or late summer, depending on when we want them to crop. The market gardener with the earliest beet is always ahead of his competitors, and ‘Bastian’s Extra Early Red Turnip’ was developed to capture that advantage. This large, olive-shaped red beet was introduced in 1871 by seedsman Henry Dreer of Philadelphia. It proved quite popular, although the horticultural journal The American Garden (1889) noted that the dark-red beet tends to blanch to a yellowish shade when boiled, thus losing its fine appearance. Cooking does not diminish its flavor, though. ‘Bastian’s’ was further improved and released in its present form in 1886, according to a notice in Farm Journal magazine.
This beet has undergone several major alterations to better acclimatize it to American growing conditions. Its parent was the ‘Egyptian’ beet first introduced commercially in Germany, then introduced to the United States in 1869 by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York. The Germans claimed the cultivar replicated features of an ancient Egyptian beet and could be traced to Egypt. This assertion cannot be supported by archaeology.
New York seedsman Peter Henderson trialed the ‘Egyptian’ beet in 1869 and 1870. Based on those field tests, he recommended the beet to readers of the American Horticultural Annual in 1871. Because seed was extremely scarce and expensive, it was several years before the beet came into general use in the United States. However, market gardeners were intrigued by its earliness — 50 to 60 days — and its excellent, rich flavor. But there were problems with its gross, uneven shape, which resulted in waste when submitted to the cook’s paring knife. This valid complaint was not taken lightly, for within 10 years an improved strain appeared that has now become a standard among beet growers.
‘Crosby’s Egyptian’ beet appeared on the scene in 1880. This new strain was perfected by Boston market gardener Josiah Crosby and introduced by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts. The beet underwent further alteration and was introduced as ‘Crosby’s Improved Egyptian’ by W. W. Rawson & Co. of Boston in 1888. Rawson was successor to B. K. Bliss of New York and the author of Success in Market Gardening. Thus, having been perfected by many hands, the beet received a glowing endorsement in The American Garden (1889). Ever since, this beet has been a perennial favorite with American kitchen gardeners and more or less replaced the old ‘Blood Turnip’ beet. It has also been used by European beet breeders to create many additional subcultivars, and it’s not rare to see Crosby’s betterave ‘Rouge Noire d’Egypte’ in European seed catalogs even to this day.
The beet is characterized by smooth skin of a reddish slate color, blood-red flesh, and a small size that guarantees tenderness. It’s extremely early, ready for harvest in June or July. Harvesting is easy because most of the root forms above the ground, thus requiring no digging. But the beet must be brought into storage before the first frost because it cannot bear hard freezing.
For beet soups or any recipe where a truly blood-red color is wanted, this beet will supply that need. It’s excellent for pickling eggs the Pennsylvania Dutch way — and, inevitably, for staining aprons. I keep a much-battered “beet apron” on hand to avoid purple splatters on my best ones. Also, it’s a good idea to wear rubber gloves when cooking with large quantities of red beets because the juice will stain your fingers and turn your fingernails brown.
Dating from the 18th century, ‘Early Blood Turnip’ is one of the oldest surviving beet cultivars. It was also one of the most popular with early American gardeners because it did well in a wide variety of climates. A handsome picture of it appeared in the Album Vilmorin (1855). The root is round, 4 to 4-1/2 inches in diameter, and when ideally formed, it has the shape of an inverted onion dome of the sort seen on Russian churches. The skin is violet-red, and the flesh is red with pale red rings. The leaves are almost black and have provided chard breeders with a source of color for many cultivars of rhubarb chard. The beet can be planted early for summer harvest or late for a fall harvest, and is best when pulled before fully grown.
This beet gets its name from the thick juice, similar in consistency to blood, that it exudes when cooked. This rich texture was particularly well-liked by colonial cooks, especially the Pennsylvania Dutch. The 1774 installment of Sauer’s Herbal Cures discusses how the blood beet was prepared among the Germans of Pennsylvania and Maryland — cooked in red wine and honey, pickled by baking gently in crocks of vinegar, and served as a salad with oil and vinegar.
A related cultivar called ‘Bull’s Blood’ is equally red and rich. It has purple-red leaves, but is only good as a spring beet harvested young. If allowed to mature too much, it becomes woody. Old Sturbridge Village museum has begun to maintain the ‘Early Blood Turnip’ beet, but seed is also available from a number of small seed firms. Seed for ‘Bull’s Blood’ is scarce.
There’s also a yellow form of the blood beet generally known as ‘Yellow Turnip-Rooted’ or ‘Orange Turnip-Rooted,’ sold today under the name ‘Golden.’ Its leaves are yellow-green with yellow ribs and veins. The flesh is dense and sweet. I prefer it to many red beets, even though its brilliant color fades to a dull yellow when cooked. It’s excellent pickled with strips of lemon rind, fresh bay leaves, and garlic. Vinegar seems to restore some of the intense color and enhance the beet’s sweet flavor.
This old French beet (betterave ‘Rouge de Castelnaudary’) is about 12 inches long and more or less carrot-shaped. A seedsman named Fearing Burr Jr. mentioned both the red and yellow cultivars in his The Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865), although at the time they were unknown in this country except among a few connoisseurs. Burr wrote a highly descriptive piece promoting the beet in the American Horticultural Annual of 1867, and the following year James J. H. Gregory listed the beet in his 1868 seed catalog. This is considered its official introduction date on this side of the Atlantic.
‘Red Castelnaudary’ has always been rare in the United States, even though seed is still readily available among seed savers. Its merits, aside from the unusual shape, are its fine, delicate flavor and its usefulness in winter salads. The carrot shape allows for quicker cooking and easier slicing, and it can be pared like a carrot before cooking. Its major drawback, if it can be called that, is that the beet requires deeply tilled soil to develop a good shape. It seems to thrive best in loose, sandy soil and therefore should be cultivated like a carrot.
Here’s an easy recipe for ‘Red Castelnaudary’ beets. Boil the beets in water until fork-tender. Cool slightly and cut into slices. Place slices into a saucepan with butter, chopped parsley, chopped chives, a pinch of flour, a little vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over low heat for 15 minutes.
Known to date from at least the 17th century, ‘Crapaudine’ may actually be much older. A “black” swollen-rooted type of chard was known as early as 320 B.C. in Greece and may in fact be the ancient progenitor of this distinctive black-skinned beet, according to food historian Andrew Dalby. In any case, this beet was raised in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries by wealthy individuals who could afford to import seed from France (where the cultivar was known as betterave ‘Crapaudine’) at their own expense. Beyond that, the beet was not generally available from American seedsmen until James J. H. Gregory began offering it in his catalogs during the late 1860s. Gregory noted in his 1868 catalog that the “French esteem this as best of all for table use,” which is entirely true. Its flavor is unmatched.
However, the outer skin of the beet is remarkable because it resembles tree bark, and is about as easy to remove. While epicures in the dining room extolled its exquisite taste and its proverbial Frenchness, American cooks railed against ‘Crapaudine’ with ax in hand. If the barky skin can be said to have a benefit, it’s clearly in the protection it affords the beet while in the ground. I left a row of ‘Crapaudine’ in the garden over the winter one year, and they were not only undamaged by a hard freeze, but they actually sent out leaves under deep snow. I’d therefore recommend the beet for its hardiness. In clay soil it tends to be tough, but in sandy ground the beet grows rounder in shape and less dense. And, happily, the skin seems to slip off easier after prolonged cooking.
The leaves of this beet are also quite distinctive, being a dark, metallic purple color. They make perfectly stunning salad greens but are much subject to leaf miner damage during hot, dry weather. I suggest keeping the plants well watered so they’re not weakened. Insecticidal soap applied regularly to the leaves will eliminate the leaf miners.
Select the best beets in fall, dig them up, and overwinter them in cool, damp sand in a frost-free place. The following spring, plant them close together so that good cross-fertilization will occur when they bolt. Stake the flowering stalks to keep the seed clusters from touching the ground. When the plants begin to die, collect the seed clusters and dry them on sheets of paper. When the clusters are dry and brittle, roll them gently to break them open and release the seed. Beet seed will remain viable for about six years. Learn more in How to Save Seeds from Biennial Plants.
This excerpt is from William Woys Weaver’s gardening classic, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Weaver has grown every one of the 280 cultivars featured in his book, which is available on DVD in our Store.
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