Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Sweet Beets.

Today, January 2nd …

The conditions of war have often been a powerful force for developments in food technology. There is the challenge of feeding large numbers of troops - often in awful situations - for example. As we saw in a previous story, the production and acceptance of condensed milk got a huge boost during the American Civil War when it proved ideal for this situation.

Another common effect of war is that normal supply lines for imported foods may be disrupted, and unless an alternative source or alternative product is found, the populace must do without. As the Napoleonic wars dragged on for the decade after Trafalgar, France found herself in danger of being without sugar. A prolonged and successful blockade of continental Europe by the British meant that cane sugar from the Caribbean was not getting into the country – and sugar was not merely a luxury in a country at war, it was vital for food preservation.

Napoleon’s need to feed a huge land army had already spurred advances in the preservation of food by canning, and he now turned his attention to an alternative source for sugar. He had heard of the pioneering work done on the extraction of sugar from beets by Marggraf in Berlin 50 years earlier, and the progress made by Marggraf’s student, Franz Achard, but it was still not possible to produce large quantities efficiently. On March 25th 1811 he issued a decree intended to stimulate experimentation in this area. It set aside 80,000 acres of land for production of beets, and established schools, scholarships, and factories in beet sugar production.
On this day in 1812 Napoleon awarded the Légion d'Honneur to Benjamin Delessert for his technical advances in the clarification of sugar which enabled the process to be carried out on a viable scale. By 1814, there were 40 beet sugar factories were in operation in France, Belgium, Germany, and Austria. The industry did temporarily decline after Napoleon’s defeat., but eventually revived, and by the late 19th century, beets had again become the major source of sugar.

Did Napoleon actually realise his wish to tell the British they could dump their sugar in the Thames? I don’t know, but he sure started something – 30% of the world’s sugar now comes from beets.

Beetroots are a fine vegetable in their own right of course, with their intrinsic sweetness being brought out by roasting, or counter-balanced with vinegar in pickling. It is not even necessary to extract the sugar to enable beets to be used in “sweet” or dessert-type dishes. In previous stories we have seen beets used in wartime puddings, pink pancakes, and mincemeat for pies (links to these are below).

To keep it simple, here are a couple of recipes from the classic Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer (1896) – one in case your beets are not sweet enough, and one in case they are too sweet for your taste.

Sugared Beets.
4 hot boiled beets.
3 tablespoons butter.
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar.
1/2 teaspoon salt.
Cut beets in one-fourth inch slices, add butter, sugar, and salt; reheat for serving

Pickled Beets.
Slice cold boiled beets and cover with vinegar.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Fame through Advertising.

A Previous Story for this Day …

Last year the story for the day was about Montelimar Nougat, and was called "A Sweet Start to the New Year".

On this Topic …

Wartime Beetroot Pudding from Nella Last.
Eighteenth century Pink Pancakes.
Wisconsin Mince-Meat

Quotation for the Day …

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


Lee said...

Interesting post...I, too, am interested in all things pertaining to food, having cooked professionally for many years. I'm making a tomato sauce at the moment, actually, from an abundance of home-grown cherry tomatoes and a load of my fresh herbs. Some will be frozen for later use and I may prepare a pasta dish later today.

Rita said...

Some very interesting concepts with regard to rustic foods. Culinary Genius

meg ragland said...

Dear Old Foodie,
I spend half of my working life researching culinary history topics (and the other half as a college librarian), and my Internet searches always seem to bring me back to your site. When is the book coming out? Your energy, curiosity and enthusiasm are inspiring. Thank you for a wonderful, helpful, interesting resource.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Meg - what kind words! Thankyou. I do love finding out these little stories, and if they are useful or fun for someone else, so much the better! My first book on the global history of the pie is done - we are considering the images now: the historic menus book is close to deadline. Dont worry - pulbication dates will be advised loud and clear. What is the purpose of your own culinary research?