Sunday, 18 January 2015

Roman Borscht

Beetroot based borscht has been staining clothes for centuries, but could it be that this Slavic soup actually has more Mediterranean origins?  An Apician recipe titled 'Varro Beets' suggests that the answer to this question might just be a rather surprising yes!

The Roman recipe is nestled amidst a number of others described as 'digestive aids', reflecting the fact that in the ancient world there was a strong link between food and medicine.  Also of interest is the dish's name - Varro Beets.  It could well be the case that this recipe is named after Marcus Terentius Varro, a Roman agricultural writer who undoubtedly had countless encounters with the beet.

Whilst I have served this dish as a soup, the Apicius recipe by no means says that this must be done - rather, we are told that the liquid makes good drinking, something which suggests that it isn't usually included in the final dish.  If this is so, then perhaps it isn't right to call this 'borscht' after all.  However, in both appearance and taste, the 'liquid' is incredibly close to the aforementioned Eastern European soup.  I'll let you decide!

Chicken and Beetroot Soup
(Serves 2)

"For Varro Beets, take black beets and clean the roots well.  Cook them with mead and some salt and oil.  Boil them down until the liquid is saturated - this liquid makes a nice drink.  It is also nice to cook a chicken with this." - Apicius, 3.2.4


  • 3 Raw Beetroot
  • 1 Chicken Thigh
  • 500ml White Wine
  • 500ml Water
  • 100g Honey
  • 2 tbsp Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper


  • Begin by adding the wine, honey, oil and water to a saucepan.  Add the chicken thigh too, then turn on the heat.  This is the stock for the soup.
  • Whilst waiting for the water to boil, peel and either grate or finely chop the beetroot.  This bit is incredibly messy and your kitchen will probably resemble the fields of Cannae after Hannibal had his way with the Romans.
  • When the stock is simmering away, add the beetroot.  Simmer for 1.5 hours to reduce the soup.
  • When the time is up, take the chicken out and shred the meat using two forks.  Pop this back in the pan with the soup.
  • Have a taste and season accordingly.  When this is done, the soup is ready.  Ladle some into a bowl and serve with some bread.  Delicious!


Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.  With fish sauce conspicuously absent, this recipe is quite different from others we have tried before.  There is an incredible sweetness tempered slightly by the meatiness of the chicken and stock.  Mostly, it is very moreish.  Having tasted the end product it is difficult to deny how close it is to borscht (albeit very sweet borscht).  Do I think the Romans did it first?  In this case, the answer is a resounding yes!


  1. This looks like a good one for the slow cooker! Have done something similar with chicken or pork and a bottle of slasa (yum). Do you suppose they might have had this with rice?

    1. Rice was known to the Greeks and Romans (Alexander encountered it on his adventures), but it wasn't commonly eaten - it was more medicinal than anything else. Nothing to stop you trying it though, and I do think the slow cooker would work wonders.