Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, chances are you’ve eaten carrots. Orange through and through, they can be eaten sweet, as in a carrot cake, or savoury with dips or in a stew. But where did they come from? Have they always been orange? The short answers are Central Asia, and nope.
Carrots, which likely originated in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush ranges and spread along the Silk Road, were white/ivory wild roots gleaned for their leaves and seeds – much like their genetic relatives of coriander and parsley, and it may be that the products of these plants were used medicinally, like many other plants and herbs.
They were first cultivated as a food crop in the Iranian Plateau and Persia, and even today the centre of diversity remains in the region, in Afghanistan. Long before they were cultivated, the wild varieties had become widespread throughout Europe, as far back as 5,000 years ago, though fossilized pollen has been identified as belonging to the carrot family in the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago).
These little roots have approximately 32,000 genes, which is more than you and I do; and just two of those genes are recessive, creating a build-up of alpha- and beta-carotene. Over a thousand years ago, purple and yellow varieties began to appear, and around 600 years ago, the orange variety began to dominate the market, appearing in Spain and Germany around the 15th or 16th century.
One apocryphal theory is that the orange coloured carrots were cultivated by the Dutch in honour of William of Orange, a 16th century commander who fought against the Habsburg dynasty; even if this legend isn’t true, the orange carrot did become associated with William of Orange, and during the 18th century, the noticeable display at market stalls was considered to be a provocative political gesture in support of William’s descendant, who had been driven from the English throne. The distaste for the political figure didn’t stem the taste for the root, however, and they grew in popularity. Most modern orange carrots descend from a strain grown in Hoorn, Holland; today’s carrots, more vivid orange, contain 50% more carotene than those of 1970. Modern carrot breeders continue to refine the carrot, improving flavour, colour and texture, as well as reducing bitterness and enhancing sweetness.
Though other varieties of carrots are making a comeback, the beta-carotene and vitamin A which causes the deep orange was thought to improve eyesight (that is a misnomer). This led to a diversion tactic of the British during World War 2: They claimed that eating carrots improved night-vision and that their pilots ate carrots to have that advantage; it was misinformation spread to hide the Royal Air Force’s development of radar technology from the Germans. Aside from the propaganda ploy by the military, carrots were a staple in the diets of the British, who used the humble root as a sweetener and a vegetable staple, and was promoted for health benefits. Food rationing tightened the Brits’ belts, but the carrot came to the rescue; it was a common, home-grown staple, and could be used as a substitute for restricted items as it was not subject to rationing. Carrot was even used as a secret code word, broadcast by the BBC in French to the French Resistance, to warn of the impending D-Day landing in Normandy: On the 4th of June 1944, several messages that seemed nonsensical to listeners were broadcast, including, “les carottes sont cuites, je répète, les carottes sont cuites!” (“The carrots are cooked, I repeat, the carrots are cooked!”) This gave the resistance fighters the signal to carry out their plans to sabotage railway and telephone lines. Carrots were the last vegetables added to a stew; if they were already cooked, it meant that the plans were set – no going back. Normandy landings began the next day, 5 June, which led to the liberation of France and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.
The word carrot was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, originally from the Indo-European root *ker– (horn), probably due to its horn-like shape. At the time, carrots (white) were visually similar to parsnips, the two being collectively called moru (from the Proto-Indo-European word mork (edible root)); the German for carrot is Möhre).
The next time you sit down to a good vegetable stew or a plate of crudité and dips, think of the grand history of the humble carrot.