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A vegetable with royal heritage.

Byline: With Elizabeth Shaheen

I simply love to grow a few carrot roots here and there amongst our spring flowers, perennials and shrubs. Their feathery tops add a delicate feel to the borders and the roots are most satisfying when harvested for the table. This vivid-orange, fleshy root vegetable is very different from its wild ancestor, which in contrast, is a tough, scraggy rooted plant with a wishy-washy-flesh dressed in a purple to white, yellow, red, greenish-yellow, or even a black skin and unfortunately has a bitter taste. The wild carrot, Daucus carota, belongs to the family Umbelliferae. In its natural state it is found growing in pastures and along roadsides and where soils are light and sandy it can expeditiously become a weed.

It is growing in our garden from a packet of wildflower seeds and is known as "Queen Anne's lace". It has long been used for its contraceptive properties.

The flowers and foliage of 'Queen Anne's lace' are so picturesque that during the reign of James 1 (1556-1625) King of England (James V1 of Scotland) ladies adorned their clothes and hats with them together with fruit, flowers and feathers and other items of nature's beautiful gifts.

The domestic carrot we grow today has a long, rich history and is reputed to have inherent nourishing properties.

Voltaire (1694-1778) said that "the art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease"!

Carrots hold many medicinal attributes, they are said to cleanse the intestines and to be a natural diuretic, anti-diarrhoeal, re-mineralising and a general tonic and anti-anaemic.

The carrot is abundant in alkaline components which purify and revitalise the blood. Carrots nourish the system and aid in the maintenance of acid-alkaline balance of the body.

Fossil pollen from the Eocene era (55 to 34 million years ago) has been identified as belonging to the Apiaceae family (the carrot family).

The history of the carrot stretches back in time to more than 5,000 years, to a region we know as Afghanistan.

Temple drawings from Egypt 2000BC depict a purple plant, which various Egyptologists deem to be a carrot. Discoveries in pharaoh crypts of Egyptian papyruses reveal how the carrot and its seeds were applied in the treatment of health ailments.

The first findings for the name carota for the garden carrot is revealed in the writings of Athenaeus (A.D. 200) and in a cookery book by Apicius Czclius (A.D. 14-37) who was a wealthy merchant and connoisseur of gastronomy in antiquity during the rule of Tiberius.

At the time, there was much confusion between distinguishing the wild carrot and parsnip and here the Greek physician Galen attempted to come to the rescue (second century A.D.) and named the wild carrot Daucus pastinaca.

Alas, the confusion persisted. Until, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), based mainly upon external features of resemblance, founded the now universal system of binominals in which all living things are given two names: one for the genus and one for the species.

He gave the scientific name Daucus carota for the carrot and Pastinaca sativa for the parsnip.

By the 18th century the use of herbs as medicine including Daucus carota had been employed for well over 4,000 years. Medicine and herbalism were in essence the same practice.

Alcuin (735-804), who was an English scholar and adviser on education to Charlemagne, the eighth century ruler of France (as legend has it) asked the king: "What is an herb? "

The king's response was: "The friend of physicians."

In the 12th century Moorish invaders, followed by Arabian traders via the coast of North Africa, introduced seeds of purple and a mutant yellow carrots to the Mediterranean, together with aubergines and spinach.

The 12th century Arab writer Ibn Al Awam, whom resided in Andalusia, southern Spain, described in his writings two varieties of carrots he encountered there: A red carrot which he claimed was tasty and juicy and the other, a yellow and green carrot which he asserted was coarser and of inferior flavour.

He wrote that carrots were served with a dressing of oil and vinegar or added to vegetables and cereals.

The carrot rapidly spread across Europe from Spain into Holland then France and ultimately a century later it arrived in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603), introduced by the Flemings, who took refuge there from the persecutions of Philip 11 of Spain, bringing with it its French name "carotte".

Over time, carrots became part of culinary usage during Elizabethan times, but the yellow forms proved more popular than the purple as these turned brown and mushy when cooked. They also imparted their colour to anything else that was cooked in the same vessel!

During the Middle Ages, doctors prescribed carrots as a cure for every imaginable ailment, from syphilis to dog bites!

With the arrival of the 16th century, virtually all botanists and garden writers across Europe were familiar with the carrot and were writing about the many varieties, embracing the red and yellow varieties in England and purple and red forms in France.

The modern carrot was imbued with a sweet flavour and orange colour by the patriotic Dutch agricultural scientists and growers in the 1500s.

They exploited by experimentation a mutant, insipid yellow carrot seed from North Africa resulting in improved roots and cross-bred them with red forms containing anthocyanin, to breed a carrot in the colour of the House of Orange, the Dutch Royal Family, which became the vegetable of the Royal Household.

The King of the time was William I of Orange (1533-84), also known as William the Silent.

It is believed that the orange carrot was bred in Holland as a tribute to William 1 of Orange during the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain in the 16th century.

Thus the orange carrot had arrived, crisp, juicy and full of flavour, but especially rich in the goodness of beta carotene.

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Date:Jul 6, 2008
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