Last year, I grew beets in my garden for the first time. Pickled beets were always one of my grandmother's favorite treats, and I decided to grow beets for the purpose of canning. I grew the Bull's Blood heirloom variety, but was not particularly happy with the taste and texture. (See my comments on Bull's Blood.) After studying the seed catalogs, this year I have selected the Chioggia Beet, an Italian heirloom developed prior to 1840.
Beets have a fascinating history. Their first documented use occurred in the Mediterranean region during prehistoric times. Early cultures harvested beet leaves for medicinal use, but beet root did not gain widespread culinary use until the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. At this time, Roman cooks began substituting beet root in place of cabbage, and soon their use spread within the Roman empire. In colonial America, beets became a popular winter vegetable, due to their long shelf life.*
The Chioggia Beet is named after a coastal town in Northern Italy. It is a fast growing variety, ready for harvest in just 55-60 days. Its roots are marketed as mild and tender, with interior flesh of alternating rings of pink and white. Many gardeners have remarked on its resemblance to the stripes on a candy cane, once sliced open. The Chioggia Beet has been available in America since the late 1840s.
Here's what Fearing Burr had to say about the Chioggia Beet in 1874:
Bulb flattened; six or seven inches in diameter by three or four inches in depth; not very regular or symmetrical, but often somewhat ribbed, and terminating in a small, slender tap-root. Skin of fine texture; brown above ground; below the surface, clear rose-red. Flesh white, circled or zoned with bright pink; not close-grained, but very sugary and well-flavored. Leaves numerous, erect, of a lively green color, forming many separate groups or tufts, covering the entire top, or crown of the root. Leaf-stems short, greenish-white, washed or stained with rose.
An Italian variety, generally considered the earliest of garden-beets, being from seven to ten days earlier than the Early Blood Turnip-rooted. The flesh, although much coarser than that of many other sorts, is tender, sweet, and of good quality. Roots from early sowings are, however, not suited for winter use; as, when overgrown, they almost invariably become too tough, coarse, and fibrous for table use. To have them in perfection during winter, the seed should not be sown till near the close of June. **
Early Flat Bassano
Rogue Plate de Bassano
Days to Harvest: 55-60
Diameter: 6-7 inches
Depth: 3-4 inches
Appearance: Pinkish-red exterior, with flesh of alternating rings of pink and white
*For further information on the history of beets, see:
Coulter, Lynn. Gardening with Heirloom Seeds. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press (2006).
Weaver, William Woys. Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. Henry Holt & Co (1997).
** Burr, Fearing. The Field and Garden Vegetables of America. Boston: William F. Gill & Co. (1874): 6.
Image of Chioggia beet also from Burr, Fearing. The Field and Garden Vegetables of America. Boston: William F. Gill & Co. (1874)