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Beetroot and the Slave Trade

If my veg patch is anything to go by then this is a good year for beetroot. A very good year. In my search for new ways to enjoy my beets I came across some interesting facts. For example, beetroot played a major part in bringing a close to the dreadful slave trade!

Such a staple veg to us now beetroot itself has only been eaten since the sixteenth century. Before then the leaves were eaten, but not the bulbous root that we so enjoy today.


Relished in Germany the beetroot’s popularity spread but didn’t really make much of an impression in the UK until the 18th century. In the 1740s a German chemist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf discovered that the crystals in beetroot syrup were identical to those found in sugar cane. At the time France and England were producing vast quantities of sugar cane on their slave plantations in the West Indies. So, the innovative Margggraf developed a new type of white beetroot (who would want red sugar?), White Silesian, that contained a higher level of sugar than previous varieties. White Silesian was the foundation for the sugar beet grown today.

This new source of sugar resulted in over-production which, combined with growing unease over the slave trade, led to the collapse in the price of sugar. And so to the collapse of the slave plantations.

Meanwhile standard red beetroot was increasing in popularity. Suttons Seeds introduced Blood Red Hamburgh in the late 1870s. As with all vegetables, new improved varieties were bred and today Suttons is offering 13 different varieties. This includes a range of shapes and colours that make for some interesting growing and eating. Long gone are the days when beetroot was simply pickled and left in a jar at the back of the fridge.


The high sugar content makes beetroot a useful baking ingredient. Combining beautifully with chocolate beetroot in cakes and brownies lends sweetness, moisture and of course, a rich colour.

Some varieties, such as Chioggia and Burpees Golden don’t really need cooking, just grating and adding to salad. But if you like your food warm then both roasting whole or simply slicing and frying in olive oil work well.

Apart from chocolate, beetroot also likes lentils, carrots, garlic, cream (think Borscht) and orange. Yes, orange. Next time you roast your beetroot peel it and slice it first. Then toss the slices in some marmalade and butter, season and roast. Fabulous!

Beetroot is such a well-loved veg it even has its own website! For more ideas on ways to enjoy your beets visit


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