Wednesday, 19 November 2014
MacGregor's Favourite Beet
I was given some seeds for this beet in a seed exchange last winter, and they sounded very interesting. (Thanks, Holly!)Mostly, I've been quite pleased with them! As you see, they are large and carrot-like in shape, with brilliant purple leaves. They are not too large or too prominent, but form a nice foot-high tuft, shiny and gently ruffled. The purple leaves are what seed-sellers emphasize, declaring that they are "tender and delicious".
Uh, no. That's why I'm mostly pleased with them. The leaves, while lovely, were tough and bitter, even in this mild, rainy year, and even when small. Very beautiful; definitely. They would make a good plant for a Victorian style carpet-bed of vegetables. On the other hand, the roots - which nobody seems to promote much - are actually very good, with a distinctive sweet, rich flavour and bright mid-purple/red colour. The long carrot shape means they are also a very usable size, and they seem very tender even when large. They would be lovely roasted with other tapered root vegetables, such as parsnips and carrots, and presented in a riot of colours but nicely consistent shapes.
Like all beets, these are biennials, so if I want any seed from them (and I rather think I do) the remaining ones will have to survive the winter outdoors. Given our good snow cover, mice are more of a hazard than freezing. They went in late-ish (early June) and did well with little attention, due to the plentiful rain we received this year from June on. Like most beets, they are pretty pest resistant. Slugs and snails sometimes bother beets but they left these ones alone. I guess they thought there were better beet tops too. Like most beets, they should be thinned. We did thin them, although not quite as carefully as would have been ideal. They did well being a little crowded - again, that long narrow shape was helpful. You will need a loose, sandy soil like ours, though, in order to get best results from these.They are described as 60 days to maturity; perhaps a little optimistic around here. However, they were fairly early and also held well in the ground.
I can find very little about the history of MacGregor's Favourite (or McGregor's Favorite, as it may also get spelt) but it is generally regarded as a Scottish heirloom. Whether this is in fact established, or whether people are simply extrapolating from the name, I cannot say. The one reference I can find to it in historic vegetable lists dates to 1890. It also seems to be known as "Dracena" or "Dracaena", presumably in reference to a resemblance to the well-known house plant.
The original wild beet had a long narrow root like MacGregor's Favourite, but the refined flavour and unusual leaves make it clear that it is the result of careful breeding. My guess is that it was developed in the mid to late 1800's, as part of the enormous burst of Victorian vegetable breeding, had it's little day in the sun, and is now rather obscure, indeed, flirting with extinction. I for one, however, think it well worth keeping going - it's a nice little beet, with beauty that is more than skin (or leaf) deep.