Sugar and Earth
by Sarah West
There is something about a beet that lingers—certainly the stains from their pigment, and even more so their less tangible elements: the earthy aroma, the syrupy sweetness of the flesh, a base note as deep and dark as midnight. One bad experience can end it all, so burned is the beet’s brand on our psyche. We polarize around them, beet lovers and haters, touting their virtues and shortcomings, finding common ground only by conceding that beets make a powerful impression.
Old souls of the vegetable aisle, their visage stirs deep remembrances of the hearth, of large pots on the boil, musky root cellars. We associate them with traditional recipes and an era of vegetables arriving to the table via cans and pickle brine. Little about a beet seems novel or fresh, but beets as we know them—bulbous roots with tender red flesh—are, botanically speaking, quite new.
Ancestor of the wild sea beet, a Mediterranean native whose range now extends to coastlands as far as Northern Europe, Britain and the Near East, beets have not always possessed their distinctive edible roots. Sea beets were likely an early nutrient source for humans in the Mediterranean region, as they grow prolifically nearly year-round. Their leaves are a choice edible when tender and young, and make a nutritious potherb once they mature.
The Romans touted the virtues of sea beets, transferring them from their rugged coastal perch into gardens, selecting those with the best tasting leaves, distinguishing between white- and black-rooted varieties for medicinal broths. In Roman times, beetroots were skinny, fibrous things boiled with honey and wine, then discarded.
Sea beet flowers are wind-pollinated; their genetics shift and transfer with the abandon of coastal breezes, resulting in slight variation from plant to plant, some exhibiting red leaf splotches or pink veins. It was the gardener that unlocked sea beets’ genetic treasury, first discovering the flamboyant stem colors and rich flavors of myriad chard varieties (a close relative to beets), then edible taproots, some red, some white. It wasn’t until the 1530’s that the first documentations of blood red, turnip-shaped roots began to appear, touting their unparalleled delicacy.
In a time before sugar cane and candy aisles, when most people’s diets were dominated by humble vegetables, beets must have seemed truly extraordinary—a root that tasted of honey, soft and rich as an organ, an aroma of minerals, humus and spice. Called Roman beets, these selections were more likely developed in northern Europe, where the caloric, well-keeping roots would have been of greater importance to people withstanding harsh winters than the tender leaves so beloved by the Romans.
Other types of beets, such as the immense mangel-wurzel, were selected specifically as livestock feed. A turnip-colored beet with extra-large roots, mangel-wurzel (literally, “chard root” in German) was a relatively easy and abundant fodder for pigs and cattle to survive the winter.
The sweetness of beetroots comes from sucrose, the same compound extracted from sugarcane that constitutes the crystalline powder we know as sugar. This discovery, made by Russian chemist Andreas Marggraf in the 1750’s, was the beet’s most commercially significant transformation. Since Marggraf, sugar beets have been improved to increase their sucrose content and soon became an important commercial crop, now accounting for 20% of worldwide sugar production.
The earthy scent and flavor of red beets, arguably their most notorious trait, comes from geosmin, a chemical compound released by microbe activity in the soil, which also contributes to the olfactory experience of rain-moistened earth following a dry spell, or freshly dug soil. The human nose is particularly sensitive to geosmin, detecting it at concentrations as low as 5 parts per trillion, which may account for impassioned responses to beets on either side of the fence.
From sandy coastal soils to humus-rich gardens, beets and their microbial allies have unraveled alluring flavor and beauty over thousands of years, and continue even into our contemporary times. Beetroots exist in greater variety today than ever before, making now as good a time as any for new beet innovations. These are not the beets of your past, flavored by cans or too much vinegar. Today’s beets are fresh, unadulterated sugar and earth, with a breath of sea breeze nudging them onward.