Modern carrots descend from wild carrots (Daucus carota sativus) that are native to central Asia, and have been in cultivation for at least 1,200 years. They were first cultivated for their leaves and seeds, being closely related to plants like cumin, fennel, dill, and parsley. But the leaves are slightly toxic, and are rarely eaten any more. Prior to the Renaissance, carrots had tough, yellow roots, and did not appear on high class menus. Since then, they have been bred for tenderness and sweetness — orange roots did not appear until the mid-19th century.
Carrots are biennial plants, and store all of their first year’s energy in the long orange taproots we know so well. If left in the ground, they will flower in their second year, and produce quite pretty white umbels resembling yellow dill flowers. The carrot seeds that we plant are, of course, the product of second year growth.
Carrots are packed with vitamin A, and high in vitamin C. Vitamins B3 and B6 are also present, as well as B1 and B2 in smaller quantities. They have been recognized since ancient times to be good for eyesight. Their distinctive orange colour (some varieties may be red, white, purple, or yellow) comes from intensely high amounts of beta-carotene. Overconsumption of carrots can lead to a condition called carotenosis, which actually turns the skin orange. It’s not dangerous on its own, but too much vitamin A can cause liver damage. Carotenosis is occasionally seen in infants who eat too much carrot-based baby food. Carrots should not be scraped or peeled if you want to maintain their maximum nutritional value, but carrots of unknown origin (not organically grown, for instance), should be peeled in order to avoid pesticide residue.
Modern orange carrots (sometimes called “Western” carrots) fall into four broad categories or cultivars, according to their breeding:
- Chantenay varieties are usually stockier, shorter, and thicker than other varieties. They are broad at the top and taper to a blunt tip. These are frequently diced for use in processed food — including pet food.
- Danvers types were developed in Danvers, Massachusetts in the 1870s, and are more tolerant of compacted soils. They are more conical in shape, tapering to a point.
- Imperator carrots are the standard one sees most often at the supermarket. They are longer than other varieties, and quite uniform in shape with their gradual taper to a pointed tip.
- Nantes (originally “Nantaise”), carrots have a blunt end and are nearly cylindrical in shape. These were bred for increased sweetness.
Carrots are a popular savoury ingredient in cuisines from around the world. Diced carrots, celery, and onion are combined to create mirepoix, the classic French base for sauces, soups, and stews. In Southeast Asian cooking, raw carrots are frequently julienned and then pickled in sweetened rice vinegar (often with daikon radish) and served as a garnish. And of course grated carrots are an essential ingredient in cole slaw, to which they add both flavour and colour. Sweetened carrots combine remarkably well with both tarragon and orange.
Bradford West Gwillimbury, in southern Ontario, boasts that its annual CarrotFest is the “World’s Greatest Carrot Festival.” Events include the “CarrotFast” (a charity marathon), a soapbox derby, battle of the bands, arm wrestling competitions, and pig races. The festival celebrates the region’s agricultural history and rich, marshy soil that is particularly well-suited to growing carrots.