At certain times of year most of us find ourselves with piles of beetroot from our allotments, gardens and veg boxes. If you wish to maximize the gift of nutrients from this oft-maligned vegetable, why not begin with a simple ferment? Its velvet viscosity can serve as the beginnings of many dishes.
Peel the beets, then slice them quite thinly in rounds. Pack them in a jar and cover with water. Alternatively you could grate the raw beetroot to quicken the fermentation and soften the texture.
You can add other ingredients of course: cloves of garlic, slices of carrot, swede, ginger, horseradish, seeds like caraway or fennel, cloves, allspice... A piece of natural bread (sourdough for instance) on top will invite the fermentation to begin, a bit of sea salt can add taste, but with beets neither is really necessary.
Keep tucking the ruby slivers of beetroot under the liquid and after several days the slow alchemy of fermentation will be revealed.
First you get a light, bubbly froth, that might arouse suspicion, but this is a sign that you are on the right track. In the next few days, as you continually poke the rising slices of beetroot down with a clean finger, you will notice the thickening of the liquid, such that it covers your finger with the texture of blood in a beautiful shade of purply magenta.
If you taste it now, it will be delicate, sour and sweet - full of flavours and freshness. This is natural ‘Wild Fermentation’, as in the book title that has taught and enthused so many of us.
At this point I would usually choose to refrigerate my ferment to slow the souring action. Now you have two resources, the beetroot pickles and the liquid.
Commercial pickled beetroot, in its spirit vinegar sourness, is often too intense, but just taste the beetroot you now have in front of you. It will have a complexity of sweet, sour, earthy and rooty flavours. Remember that this is an raw, uncooked pickle, completely intact in its nutrition. It is a wonderful addition to a salad and with a vinaigrette dressing a salad in itself.
If you love the British beetroot tradition, these lacto-fermented beet pickles will last even longer in a nice bath of natural apple cider vinegar.
This elixir is such a gorgeous thing; in it you can taste the miracles of aliveness, enzymes, renewed and accessible vitamins, redolent with the flavours you have chosen to add; garlic, ginger and cloves being my favourites. Reserve this thick liquid and begin your soup or Borscht, conjuring the compendious, folklorical, mama’s-kitchen quality to the history and variety of soups made from beetroot. In a world of infinite possibility, there is no such thing as a right or wrong Borscht. Start with a stock: vegetable / animal / or mineral (I’m thinking seaweed), add leeks, onions, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, or whatever you desire. To keep the livingness of your beetroot elixir, you should add this at the end. If you simmer with it, you sacrifice some probiotics but deepen the flavour. Now you can add dairy, (cultured as in sour cream or crème fraiche), chopped hard-boiled egg, or anything else you choose within the confines of seasonality. The tradition of seasonality is one of the wonders of these soups, especially because beetroot can be stored for so long, even into the spring when nettles first appear, asking to join the party of pink and purple, living, lively, curative eating.
Annie Levy lives in mid-Wales with her mad-cap family and a countertop full of traditional and experimental pickles. She blogs at Kitchencounterculture.co.uk
Read: The Art of Fermentation at reduced price of £29.95