Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Purple Phase

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Purple Phase

Article excerpt

FOOD

Bee Wilson on the double life of beetroot

When you hear the word beetroot, do you think "yum" or do you think "yuk"? Much depends, I suspect, on which circles you move in. Among young Londoners beetroot is in with the in-crowd, it with the It girls. Trendy chefs wood-roast it, mandolin it and crisp it, juice it up with carrots for a California-style cocktail or use it in salads with copious amounts of olive oil. Among Eastern European emigres, it is the basis of traditional soups and side-dishes. For kitchen gardeners, it is a satisfying winter root, which is reaching full maturity just about now. But among us provincials, beetroot is still that odious vegetable that seeps its vinegary juices in pink swirls on cafeteria salad plates.

No vegetable exemplifies better than beetroot the polarity in the modern British diet: between past and present, the working and upper classes, gastrophobes and gastrophiles. (Peas run a close second, though, with the mushy peas/fresh-pea-and-mint divide). The beetroot you can buy in supermarket packets boiled in malt vinegar is more of a condiment than a vegetable - like HP Sauce, it only makes sense with meat. The sort of beetroot dishes esteemed by gourmets, on the other hand, use beets as the main event, almost a meat in itself. What both share, though, is a dazzlingly outlandish pigment.

Some dishes treat beetroot as a dye as much as a flavour: lipstick-coloured tagliatelle, ruby-red risotto, even beetroot-pink icing for a cake. An anonymous cookbook of the 18th century gave a recipe "To make the Crimson Biscuit of red Beetroots". In French and German, beetroot is actually defined by its redness: bette rouge, rote Rube. This colour, which some loathe and some love, derives from a mixture of pigments, purple betacyanin and yellow betaxanthin. You can get varieties where the purple pigment is lacking, whose flesh is orange, yellow or even white. …

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