A Brief History of the Beetroot

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?


6 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Beetroot

  1. Interesting post… especially in light of this email I just received about beetroot bread. Thought you might enjoy it a snippet… I especially loved the quote at the bottom regarding the beet’s inherent melancholy. 🙂

    “Here are the instructions for Beetroot Bread, from The Horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste, Volume 1 (1847)

    Beet-root Bread.
    Take one stone of Beetroot, boil it until it becomes quite soft, pound or mash it fine, (just as turnips are mashed for table,) then add one stone (or equal parts) of wheaten flour, and bake with yeast, in the same way as bakers do wheaten or common flour bread. The same process will answer for making bread from a mixture of flour with Parsnips, or with While Belgian carrots. I also wish to state that the above mixture and mode of baking will do equally well for making griddle bread, which is important to all those who possess ovens, and that the addition of half an ounce of bread soda to 14 pounds (or one stone) of mixed Beet-root and flour, will answer the same purpose as yeast does, in making the common bakers’ bread, light, wholesome, and nutritious.—T. O’Brien, Baker, Dublin.

    Quotation of the Day.

    The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip…
    Tom Robbins.”

    • Hi Katie,

      I believe we received the same email yesterday. Very interesting, thank you for sharing. I’ve got another Tom Robbins’ quote about the beetroot and other vegetables:

      The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.
      – Tom Robbins

  2. Hi Kristina,
    I understand that you have made some efforts to find out the origin of the word rosolje. I am also very much interested in that subject, and like you, I have failed so far. However, in Võõrsõnade Leksikon (Ed. Vääri, Valgus, Tallinn 2000) it is stated that the word is derived from the French language. Nevertheless, I cannot find anything simliar in the French dictionaries I have at thand. Any comments?
    Olev Mathiesen

    • Hello Olev,

      Not knowing the Russian language, I can’t be sure, but I was under the impression that the word was borrowed from Russian vocabulary. But where it appeared in the Russian language, I am not sure. In France and Italy, a similar mayonnaise-based salad is always called a Russian Salad. It then would seem strange that the word would have been derived from French.

      Further investigation needed.

      • Hi Kristina,
        Yes, I think you are on the right track. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Russian is very poor but I found that Saagpakk states in his Estonian-English Dictionary that the word rosolje is derived from Russian, so Võõrsõnade Leksikon probably is wrong. Or, is it? One possibility could be that there in fact is an adjective in French that resembles ‘rosolje’ and means something mixed, multicoloured or variegated. This word could then have been adapted by the Russian chiefs to give a fancy and French-sounding name to the salad they created. I am quite convinced that the Estonian dish rosolje has its origin in the Russian kitchen. Do you know of any such adjective in French? Or, still simpler: could it possibly be derived from the French noun ‘rousseur’, a redish-brownish or -yellowish shade, or from the verb ‘roussir’, to make red?

  3. Pingback: ‘Breathe properly. Stay curious. And eat your beets.’ | The Buzz

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