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Beet this: The lowly root vegetable is now a star ingredient

Martin Juneau's final dish from the Grande Finale at the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship.

It was an unlikely root vegetable that won the day at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, B.C. Recently, the winning chef, Montreal's Martin Juneau of Newtown restaurant, featured beets in three delicious ways at the sold-out gala: in a purple-red purée; sliced paper-thin and gently pickled with onion and dill; and as a glaze for the perfectly crisp crackling on an irresistible square of St.-Canut pork belly. The effect was confidently Canadian. And he paired the dish, not with wine, but with a delicious russet apple hard cider from La Face Cachée.

Humble fare for a high-end cooking competition. But not entirely unexpected.

Some of the country's hottest culinary trends are played out in the dishes created for this annual event. During five years of judging, I have watched the role played by local ingredients in general (and beets in particular) grow significantly. Foie gras and truffles have been demoted to supporting roles, when they are cast at all. Molecular gastronomy is employed more judiciously than it used to be. And now with the crowning of Mr. Juneau, Canada's love affair with the beet is official.

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Even international chefs with Michelin stars are elevating the root vegetable to a star ingredient. At the Parisian three-star L'Arpège, Alain Passard (who famously does not cook with red meat) features an ode to beets on his tasting menu, naming each variety (presumably the common Burpee variety does not sound quite so unappetizing in French) and slow-roasting them in a crust of sel de Guérande. At Manresa, David Kinch's two-star restaurant in the Bay Area south of San Francisco, he transforms the sweet vegetable into a granita that is paired with a chocolate sorbet and hazelnut tartine.

For chefs who care about local seasonal ingredients (which is to say nearly every cook with a pulse and a Twitter account), beets have emerged as the go-to ingredient, winter's and early spring's answer to the tomato. It's not hard to see why: Beets are pretty to look at, they are relatively cheap, and they store well through the winter. They are perfectly suited to the harsh realities of Canada's northern climate.

Just as New World winemakers often compare their soil and climatic conditions with those of Old World regions - winemakers in Prince Edward County, Ont., are forever likening the local soil to that of Burgundy - you can draw the same parallels with food crops. According to Michael Symons, an Australian food historian who famously divided up Australia's growing regions along climatic lines, Ontario and Quebec growing conditions are very similar to those in Central Europe and Northern China. That observation came flooding back to me as I took my first bite of Mr. Juneau's pork belly and beet dish, which tasted almost Hungarian with its sweet-and-sour dill-inflected flavour.

But when Mr. Juneau, presented the final dish to the judges' table, he simply shrugged. "I wanted to show you something typical of Quebec. Where I come from, we have a lot of beets at this time of year."

The dish would have been even more of a treat if I had not eaten 10 other dishes featuring beets that day, cooked by chefs who hailed from eight cities across the country, including an irresistible popsicle of beets and ice wine, made by Frank Dodd of Hillebrand Winery in Ontario. The night before the competition began, at a dinner at Mr. Swarowski's sparkly Sparkling Hill spa, executive chef Ross Derrick had prepared a beet "sponge" that became the talking point of the seven-course meal: juiced beets combined with gelatin and whipped into a froth of a daydream.

Not all beets are created equal; much depends on the variety and the way they are grown. David Cohlmeyer, vegetable grower to many of Ontario's star chefs, grows several unusual varieties of beets on his farm in Cookstown, Ont., from the sweet candy cane Chioggia beets that first appeared in Venetian markets in the early 1800s to the cylindrical beets that chefs love because they are so much easier to slice and dice evenly.

According to Mr. Cohlmeyer, beets are also one of those vegetables that can be produced cheaply in mediocre soil, which can yield bitter, woody results. Farmers used to send those lesser quality beets to local processing plants. With the disappearing market for pickled beets - not to mention the closures of the local plants that processed them - beet sales have not increased significantly, despite their apparent ubiquity at the farmers' markets.

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But like so many things in life, you get what you pay for: Shoppers still leery of their grandmother's tasteless roots may be surprised to discover that a bunch of beets from an organic farmer doesn't need to be pickled to death to taste good. You can simply roast it with a little salt and pepper and olive oil (as Alice Waters does) or slice it thinly and serve it raw. As Craig Flinn, a straight-talking chef from Halifax likes to say, "Great farmers are sometimes the best prep cooks you can have."

Which makes me wonder about next year's star ingredient for Canada's top chefs. Turnips, anyone?

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