The southern regions of Europe may be the original home of beets. They were used as food for both humans and livestock.
The Greeks used two different types of beets: black and pale, also called beet-root and white-beet. They preferred the pale beets, which they called Sicilian beets even though the best ones came from Boeotia in central Greece.
The physician Diphilus of Siphnus, who wrote about diet for both healthy and sick people around 300 BC, considered beets even better than cabbage for their health benefits. He prescribed them as a vermifuge, which is something that cleanses the body of intestinal worms by killing them or causing the body to expel them. He recommended eating beets boiled with mustard.
Beets were preserved in dry cellars and in trenches covered with earth layered with sand. The preserved beets could be used as late as May of the year after harvest.
Original Roman Recipe
Slice beets with leeks.
Crush coriander and cumim.
Add raisin wine* (Presumably the crushed coriander and cumin are added to the wine.)
Boil all down to perfection (That’s what it says in Apicius. Your guess is as good as mine or maybe better as to what “perfection” is.)
Bind it (I think this means by adding flour to make something like a roux even though this recipe lacks the fat source, like butter, that is typically used in a roux.)
Serve the beets separated from the broth with oil and vinegar.
* Raisins are just dehydrated grapes, so perhaps any red table wine or a red-wine substitute will be fine in this recipe.
The Romans used wine a lot in their cooking. The longer a dish cooks or the higher the temperature, the more alcohol is evaporated since the boiling point of ethanol (regular drinking alcohol) is 78.4 °C or 173 °F at sea level. (It’s even lower at higher altitudes.) For comparison, water boils at 100 °C and 212 °F at sea level. Table wines that are used for cooking usually have between 8 and 14% alcohol with 10-11% being most common, so very little alcohol remains when cooking is completed.
Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1977.
Soyer, Alexis. Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times: Alexis Soyer’s Pantropheon. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.