Say the word ‘Carrot’ and instantly the idea of a 6-8 inch, bright orange, vaguely conical taproot being gnawed on by a rabbit with a Brooklyn accent comes to mind.
Or to my mind, at the very least. Bugs Bunny was and still is very popular in my household.
But it would probably surprise a lot of people that when carrots were first domesticated, not only were the NOT orange, they were also probably cultivated as an herb, rather than the veggie that we all know and love today.
Wild carrots are said to have been native to what is present day Afghanistan. It probably didn’t take long for folks to find the aromatics of the plant to have some value. From there, it didn’t take much longer before someone sampled the root and said something along the lines of “Hey! This doesn’t taste horrible, and I didn’t get horribly sick or even die from it!”. This meant that the carrot was headed for the big time.
Via the various trade routes, the carrot ended in Far East of Asia and the various Mediterranean regions. There is many references and evidence of carrots in ancient Egypt (via trade records and seeds found in Pharaoh’s crypts), ancient Greece (where it was likely to be used as medicine rather than food) and ancient Rome (where they found that certain varieties of carrots tasted wonderful with olive oil dressing).
Within these time periods, there has been evidence found that aspects of the carrot were used in medicine, as an aphrodisiac, and even the start of using the root as food. There is no evidence to show that during these times that carrots were orange. They were more likely to be purple, white, pale yellow, red, green and even black.
It was the Romans who most likely spread the root throughout Europe, because taking something that was popular in Rome and tried to introduce it to foreign cultures was something that Romans did fairly well.
Throughout the middle ages, the popularity of the carrot was assured by the herbalists who valued the leaves of the carrot for the flavors it added to food and medicines, and the root was primarily used for medicines. This is because colored purple or black were cooked they tended to look quite unappetizing. The purple roots tended to turn brown and the black roots looked even darker. It was the lighter colored variants of the root that were eventually introduced into cooking.
When the orange variant finally appeared on the scene, all of the carrot would be used in food. Adding to their benefits? They grew quite easily and didn’t need any extra prodding to be introduced into new environments like those in what is now present day Massachusetts, New Mexico or Brazil.
The carrots popularity was such that they were mentioned in Shakespeare’s work, worn as adornments on hats, and used as subjects in Renaissance paintings.
It was the Dutch who introduced the world to the modern version of carrots, breeding what are now know as the Early Half Long, Late Half Long, Scarlet Horn and Long Orange varieties. All of these carrots were orange, and All modern hybrids are derived from these four strains. So we can thank the Dutch for getting black carrots off of the menus.
As carrots are part of what many believe to be the “Holy Trinity” of cooking , their history is a long and important one. As I get through my three standard recipes per ingredients, I’ll probably be coming back to other points of carrot history in the coming weeks.