Homegrown carrots taste delightfully sweeter, fresher, crisper and have a far more pungent smell than ones we buy in supermarkets. If one can grow a carrot successfully and scrape back the soil to reveal a little glint of orange attached to the feathery green leaves (that resemble parsley and dill as distant relations), then they can feel very satisfied and like a proper vegetable grower.
Carrot, a root vegetable, is usually recognisable to us as that bright orange crop but it can be found in black, purple, white, red and yellow. In fact, the orange colouring was the last to be developed from the list. The cultivated carrot originated from the wild carrot, initially coloured white. There are white rooted carrots still around today, mostly used for animal feed or as a novelty crop.
Carrots have an ancient history. Fossil pollen from the Eocene period, 55 to 34 million years ago, has been identified to belong to the Apiaceae, the original carrot family. It is said that the carrot dates back to about 5,000 years ago, first cultivated in Persia (areas that are now Afghanistan and where the wild carrot is still popularly grown today). From there, carrot seeds were sold by caravans to neighbouring African, Asian and Arabian lands where the cross-breeding began. Historians have been able to show that this particular vegetable was important to our ancestors in Egypt from the evidence of numerous carrots being placed in tombs alongside the dead pharos and drawings of carrot harvests in hieroglyphic paintings. During this time, the carrot was grown purple. This was before a mutant occurred, removing the purple pigmentation and creating a new species of yellow carrots (where our known orange ones eventually derived from and hung around). The orange carrot is thought to have developed in the early Middle Ages, after hybridisation with a central Asian species. The first European author who mentions red and yellow carrots is the Byzantine dietician Simeon Seth during the 11th century.
After its popularity in Egypt, carrots were medicinally used in Ancient Greece and during the Roman period although they do not appear in many scribes where parsnips had a more preferred role for harvesting. For a time, the word parsnip was interchangeable with carrot due to the confusing similarities between the two. Bitter and hard to eat, carrots were used to heal many illnesses and as use of a sexual aphrodisiac. In normal cooking, Romans boiled them and covered them in dressings and various herbs.
By the 13th century, carrots had moved to Japan and were being cultivated in the gardens of France and Germany. In the 1600s, they were brought to the New World, Jamestown and Virginia in particular. During the Middle Ages, carrots continued to be confused with parsnips and some believed they originated from the same plant, mostly because carrots during this time were still white or purple rooted. It is thought that the orange colouring of carrots was not ‘stabilised’ until around the 17th century in the Netherlands after that mutation rid them of their darker outer-colourings. Yellow carrots had been gifted to the ruling House of Orange. After years of selective breeding, Dutch carrots were designed to no longer be bitter in taste, becoming Daucus Carota.
America were amongst the last to accept carrots in its cuisine. They only became customary after the Great War when soldiers returned home with knowledge of European dishes, French ones in particular, that had helped them survive their ordeals during military combat. The modern popularity of the carrot in cooking can be traced to English meals during World War II where the government actively encouraged the population to grow and cook the hearty vegetable as a way of increasing people’s consumptions of important nutrients during rationing and lack of imports.
Today, the carrot is a traditional vegetable, shared between horses and humans alike and is a customary delight of children’s diets. The average person will consume 10,866 carrots in a lifetime. Currently, China produces the most carrots in the world. In 2010, they produced 15.8 million tons. Purple carrots (still orange on the inside) were first sold commercially in British stores in 2002.
Carrots have a rich supply of antioxidant nutrient beta- carotene and vitamin C. Different varieties of carrots contain different amounts of antioxidant phytonutrients. For example, red and purple carrots have a rich anthocyanin content and orange carrots have outstanding levels of beta-carotene (which makes them orange in the first place), 65% of their total carotenoid content. Due to the richness of antioxidants, carrots are advertised as being beneficial for our cardiovascular systems that need protection from antioxidant damage, particularly for our arteries that carry highly oxygenated blood. A study in the Netherlands suggested that carrots are the best food for reducing these cardiovascular diseases. Participants in the investigation who ate 25 more grams of carrots than other studies had a significantly lower risk. Those who ate less carrots, had a higher risk or having a cardiovascular disease. Carrots also contain anti-inflammatory and anti-aggregatory properties that prevent excessive clumping together of red blood cells, protecting our bodies from the inside pretty well. Other studies suggest that carrots are beneficial in reducing cancer, especially colon cancer but more research is required in these ares as to how much they help.
The tale that carrots help you see in the dark was in fact a World War II propaganda stunt circulated by the British to mislead their oppositions, suggesting that their RAF pilots ate a diet rich in carrots that helped them to see their enemies at night in order to hide the technology they were using. From this story, the belief that carrots improve our eyesight became ‘an old wife’s tale’ but there is some truth in the myth. Vitamin A, that carrots contain a fair amount of, helps the eye convert light into a signal that can be transmitted to the brain, allowing people to see in low-light conditions. Also, the cornea in the eye can disappear when one is lacking in vitamin A. Therefore, carrots might not give us super-night vision, but they will help to protect our eyesight a fair amount.
The other carrot nutrition story is that eating too many can turn one’s skin orange. This is, oddly enough, true, mostly noticeable in the palms and soles of the feet. This is called carotenemia and is fixed by reducing one’s intake of carrots.
Varieties I have grown:
Baby Carrots – Sow: January May
Autumn King 2 – Sow: March-July
Amsterdam – Sow: March – July
Flyaway – Sow: March – July
Eskimo – Sow: March – July
Sugarsnax – Sow: March – July
They can all be harvested from the summer until winter, depending on when they are sown and how kind the weather is for us.
These are all orange varieties. It would be fun to try growing different coloured ones but they do have a reputation for tasting woody. I believe Mark Diacono once wrote that their taste resembled eating a trowel…
Carrots are best sown direct into a finely prepared patch of soil. Most people advise not to plant carrots in manure to prevent forking carrots. However, as we work in such barren, sandy soil, this year I took the risk and dug a small amount of very well-rotted manure, compost and mulch into the soil a while before planting the carrots. It helped enormously for us – last year my carrots were tiny and took forever to germinate and grow to reasonable harvesting size. This year we have already picked a fair few in good shape and they have been delicious. I have only come across one forked carrot so far but to be honest, I am not too fussy. They taste the exact same even if they look comically odd.
Sow carrot seeds in drills, 1cm (1/2 inch) deep, trying to leave about 30 cm (12 inch) apart. Sowing the tiny seeds can be very hard and they do like to ‘bunch’ or ‘clump’ together, giving you patches of carrots rather than an even spread. Water the area well – inconsistent watering can lead to irregular growth and splitting in the carrot root so be wary of droughts.
Carrots should be sown successionally every few weeks for a steady supply throughout the year. Try not to sow them too close together as they are a nightmare to thin and release volatile chemicals that will attract carrot flies.
Carrot flies are the worst pest for carrots. They need to be guarded with a cover all the way around to keep the bugs out. This year we have stuck bamboo canes into the soil and draped fleece over like a tent so as not to crush the carrot heads this year. We then pinned the fleece to the ground to make sure no flies find a way in. Mark Diacono, River Cottage ‘Veg Patch’ book suggests comfrey or seaweed solution discourages carrot flies and improves plant growth. Companion planting of chives (we have done that this year around the edges) or spring onions work well, the strong smells deterring the carrot flies. French Marigolds are also great too and look beautiful. I always pop a few in close by for beauty if not purpose.
Other pests I have had slight problems with previously have been slugs and snails that munch underground. This is likely to happen if you leave your carrots in the earth over the winter months.
Harvest your carrots from May onwards when the tops are orange and the carrots look big enough to gently pull up from the ground. Leave the smaller ones to have the chance of getting bigger.
If you are planning to store them rather than eat them straight away, wash them, dry them and place them in a crate full of slightly damp sand or in paper sacks that exclude the light. Otherwise, you might be able to leave the carrots in the ground for a few months, especially over winter. They will keep better this way than in the fridge.
I like to eat my homegrown carrots raw, freshly pulled up from the earth. They taste best this way, finely sliced into matchsticks and eaten alongside more salad, perhaps with pasta or a baked potato and cheese or put in a dip. Otherwise, of course one can boil them and eat them with other vegetables with perhaps a roast dinner, sausages or fish and potatoes, see my recipe for Chicken Casserole:https://wordpress.com/posts/thekitchengardenblog.wordpress.com , or they can be finely sliced or grated for a stir fry or a Bolognese or Chilli Con Carne, see below. Or roasted in the oven after being sliced and drizzled with olive oil. Another classic is carrot and coriander soup or, for the juicers out there, carrot juice, blitzed in a processor. There is, of course, the popular carrot cakes as well if you ever have enough. The tops of the carrots are edible too for those with an acquired taste. My ducks love them so I share them out instead.
Chilli Con Carne
Chilli Con Carne is best cooked with lots of grated carrot in it.
The chilli makes this a very warming dish. You can use any beans grown from your patch, podded, like borolotti beans, haricot beans, soy beans, broad beans, or stick to the traditional kidney beans you can buy canned or dried for soaking. Exclude the minced meat if catering for vegetarians. If you leave out the chili, this immediately becomes Bolognese to serve over spaghetti with cheese or a lasagna filling. It freezes well. Serve with lots of other vegetables from your kitchen garden, like peas, runner beans, broad beans, broccoli, kale, cabbage… I also like to add some greens into the actual dish itself, often kale or swiss chard, perhaps pak choi, komatsuna, perpetual leaf spinach or normal spinach.
– 450g prepared and cooked kidney beans/ borlotti beans/ soy beans/ broad beans etc. – Olive oil – 450g minced meat (omit if vegetarian) – 2 large onions, finely sliced – 2 large cloves of garlic, finely diced – 6 large carrots, finely grated – 800g tinned tomatoes – 300g of greens (kale, lettuce, swiss chard, pak choi, spinach etc.), de-stalked and shredded – Dash of soy sauce – Dash of Lea and Perrin’s – Salt and pepper – 1 chili (or more, depending on how hot you like your meal to be), de-seeded and finely diced – 400g basmati rice, to serve – Peas, runner beans, broccoli, kale, to serve
- Fry the minced meat in an oiled pan until well cooked and browned.
- In a separate frying pan, fry the cut up onion in olive oil over a high heat. When it starts to brown, turn it down to a low heat and leave it to simmer. Add the grated carrot and allow to fry until the carrot is cooked (turn up the heat and stir if you can hang around the stove to speed it up).
- Add the tinned tomatoes and diced garlic and stir. Add the greens and stir in to wilt. Add a dash of soy sauce, Lea and Perrin’s and salt and pepper. Stir in.
- Add the cooked beans of choice and the mince to the con carne, stirring in well. Leave to combine flavors for at least ten minutes over a low flame. Add the cut chili and stir in well. Leave the ingredients to combine over a low heat, simmering.
- Meanwhile, bring a pan of water to the boil and add the rice. Turn the heat down to low and leave it to cook for about 20 minutes until all of the water has been absorbed.
- Bring another pan of water to the boil and add peas, runner beans, broccoli, kale, any green vegetables of your choice. Once cooked, drain.
- Serve the Chilli Con Carne over rice with the vegetables alongside.