In light of the debate that transpired last week over the origin of rosolje (beetroot salad), I decided to do some investigating. While my research brought me no closer to a definitive answer (Is rosolje Russian or Estonian?), the history of the beetroot is indeed worth sharing.
Around 800 BC, the beet was mentioned in an Assyrian text as growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and offered to the sun god Apollo in the temple of Delphi by the Greeks. The beet evolved from the wild seabeet, which is perhaps why Beta vulgaris was originally prized for its leaves, and not for its root. Romans described early varieties of the beet being black and white. Roman texts discuss more uses for the beet’s root than its leaves. In general, beets were consumed for their medicinal properties, mainly as a laxative or to relieve fever.
Early recipes suggest boiling the beets in water and salt, or chicken broth. The broth was then drunk. Leftover beets were served with a dressing of oil, vinegar and mustard. Presumably is was still mainly the leaves that were being consumed up to this point. Beta vulgaris spread across Europe and adapted very easily to the cooler climates of Northern Europe.
The beetroot of the Middle Ages looked quite different to the beetroot of today. Its roots were long and thin, not plump and round as they are recognised today. In Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate et Valitudine Vulgare (On Right Pleasure and Good Health) 1460, he includes a recipe for a green sauce which includes beet leaves. Platina also mentions that beetroot, fire roasted and eaten with garlic helps freshen breath.
New varieties of beetroot were developed in Germany and Italy, particularly the red variety, most common today. The beetroot continued to spread throughout Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. By the end of the Middle Ages, the beetroot had become an important staple in the Eastern European diet. The sixteenth century saw the creation of borsch and Scandinavian beetroot and herring salads.
By the nineteenth century beetroot was widely consumed across Europe. English recipes suggested pickling beetroot. Southern European and Mediterranean recipes praised both the root and the greens, using more olive oil based dressings. Northern European recipes discuss some pickling as well boiling. Northern and Eastern European beetroot salads tend to contain more dairy than those of the south.
Perhaps rosolje didn’t originate from Russia at all, but rather Sweden… Thoughts?