The History of Carrot

There is no better conversation one could have at the dinner table than one about the very food one is eating, I think. Yesterday at Casa I had this confirmed, as we slowly drifted onto the problem of the colour of carrots. The legend says the Dutch "invented" the yellow carrot, some claimed it was white, some purple. So what are we laymen to believe?

Apparently, the English - who seem to have long ago abandoned the habit of being gourmets, in most cases - even came up with a (virtual) Carrot Museum, which is the place to be to become knowledgeable about the favourite root of the modern era. In fact, until some years ago, carrots weren't so popular as today, and people still preferred the bigger and more delicate parsnip for soups and stews. How to blame them?

So the modern carrot was purple and originated in Afghanistan and Persia, and was brought to Western Europe as late as the 10th century AD by the Arabs, along with other fancy stuff like soap, aubergines and sugar. At this point, there were only whitish and purplish carrots. Authoritative carrot historians are still fighting over the different theories that attribute the colour orange to different causes. Thus spake the Carrot Museum website:

1) One theory proposes that orange was a characteristic of western carrots selected in Southern Europe or Asia Minor. A hybridisation theory supposes crosses between cultivated and wild germaplasm may have played a part in the enhanced pigment types. (Small 1978) Another states that orange-rooted carrots occurred in the Mediterranean, around Turkey, where cultivated carrot diversity was particularly prominent. (Mackevic 1932).

2) Another theory, (Banga) which has subsequently been discounted, is that, on the basis of the appearance in European oil paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries is it considered that the Dutch selected and fixed orange varieties from yellow, developing its colour from gradual selections of yellow carrots. The orange cultivars "late horn" and "half long horn" originated in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. (Banga and Simon). Oddly white roots began to appear in pictures about the same time, perhaps implying that there had been little attempt by western Europeans to domesticate the wild, white rooted carrot until Moorish invaders came along with their coloured roots.

3) A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century to honour William of Orange. Though the stabilised orange carrot does date from around seventeenth century Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouring William of Orange had anything to do with it! Some astute historian managed to install the myth that the work an unexpected mutation was developed especially to thank King William I as a tribute to independence from Spain.


Think about this when you'll find the next carrot in the dumpster!


dcarpano's picture

This is dynamite. It is so

This is dynamite. It is so interesting how few foods are left in our grocery store aisles, and in our dumpsters. We have managed to take a world so full of interesting foods, and with so much biodiversity and to turn it in to a corn and soy machine. (Similarly, there are thousands of types of corn native to North America, we eat Monsanto's)

lilylove's picture


interesting stuff! Man, the history of fruit/veggies is really fascinating to me - we know so little about the history of our food! I just read a book on banana's called "Banana - the fate of the fruit that changed the world"

and it was seriously incredible. I couldn't recommend it enough. Banana's are crazy crazy plants, and seriously important to our world - especially in country's like Kenya, who rely on them heavily as food source in certain times of the year. Honduras has something like 70percent banana plantations, and the chemicals used to keep away the long list of fungus/bacteria that attacks bananas is turning workers skin BLUE and causing massive amounts of infertility in men and other crazy problems. Organic bananas aren't necessarily better since they have to be grown in VIRGIN forest (so the soil isn't already contaminated). Let alone the crazy banana giants like Chiquita and Dole, who often took control of countries and basically became dictators through the power they held in land/plantations. ("1000 years of Solitude" talks about the thousands that were killed over bananas)

The interesting thing though is the different types of bananas (there are 100's!)... we only eat the one kind - Cavendish - since it's the only one (found so far) that has all the characteristics we need - easily transported, hard tough skin, yellow, sweet taste, longer shelf life (7 days) etc... Up until the 1960's it was the Gran Michel that was in supermarkets, until the Panama Disease (a fungus) destroyed ALL plantations around the world.. they thought the Cavendish was immune, but now it's destroying those too!!! In ten years there may not be anymore bananas!!!!

check out the book! Really interesting! (to nerds like me :)..)

robino's picture

yeah - I already thought the

yeah - I already thought the Dutch connection was nonsense ;) I like the Turkish background the most. It resembles a lot the story of where tulips come from: "Although tulips are associated with The Netherlands, commercial cultivation of the flower began in the Ottoman Empire" (source).