'Bull's Blood' beetroot

With deep crimson leaves, ‘Bull’s Blood’ beetroot is very intense. Photograph: Corbis

The author Tom Robbins was right when he wrote in his novel Jitterbug Perfume: “The beet is the most intense of vegetables… The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.”

Just think of that deep, earthy flavour beneath all the sweetness, the glossy leaves and swelling root, supping up all that is good below.

Last year I ran a ribbon of ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets through the garden and left them until early spring, a dark purple vein that looked magnificent on overcast days and resplendent on sunny ones. Then I ate them. ‘Bull’s Blood’ is an awesome beet with deep crimson leaves. Its bloodiness runs so deep that its fine root hairs are stained red. It is not the sweetest, perhaps, nor the most tender, but you don’t come to it for that. You come because it is so very intense, so very dark and serious.

I am repeating it this year, raising modules and planting out rather than direct sowing. I sow two or three seeds per module and plant out in this cluster. This allows me to harvest a small beet or two, then leave the last to fatten.

On the allotment, I pursue a different tack. There, I want sweetness and light. I grow patches and rows of baby beets that I can cook quickly. This means endless succession sowing: once one lot is up, time for the next, which is roughly every two weeks.

Beetroot seeds are hard and corky. They need moisture to get going and should be covered with a thin layer of soil or compost. If the soil is dry, water it first. As all parts are edible, I tend to thin in stages: baby leaves for salads, followed by baby and then full-grown beets.

Thompson & Morgan have a collection called Rainbow Beets that, for £1.99, contains all that one might wish for: a deep red globe, a vibrant yellow (sweeter than its red siblings), the candy stripes of ‘Chioggia’, the pure white ‘Albina Vereduna’ (the sweetest yet) and ‘Bull’s Blood Scarletta’ (when cut open, it reveals cerise rings inside). You can create your own rainbow by mixing up any leftover seeds.

My only other beet love is the ‘Egyptian Turnip Rooted’ kind that sits like a disc on the soil. This likes very warm conditions and can be sown now, but will sulk if sown in spring. It has a flavour like no other and a skin that peels off perfectly to reveal smooth flesh. It’s particularly good raw with lemon juice, salt and as much olive oil as you like.