Borsch. Borscht, bortsch, borstch. However you choose to spell it, there's no question this deep magenta-hued beetroot soup is an eye-catcher. The jury is still out on borsch's origins, but most food historians agree that the cold climes of Ukraine - where it's regarded as the national soup - are most likely where it was first supped.
Many Central and Eastern European countries have since added different ingredients to make this soup their own. In Poland, borsch is a clear broth, while in Belarus it's a chunky soup made with the addition of tomatoes. But in Ukraine there are more kinds of borsch than anywhere else in the world, with variations documented from Kiev to Odessa and almost everywhere in between. One version contains dried white beans, another is flavoured with spicy sausage or chopped ham. It can be made with beef, pork, chicken or goose stock, and then there's the vegetarian version, based on mushroom stock, that's made on religious fast days.
Common to all variations, though, and playing a major role in imparting colour and an earthy flavour, is the key ingredient of beetroot. The traditional slightly sour taste of borsch comes from pickling the beetroot, and you can increase the intensity of the sourness by adding a little of the pickling juice to the broth at the end of cooking.
Our recipe, based on one of the many Ukrainian variants, is rich with gelatinous slow-cooked beef shin, flavoursome beef stock, cubes of almost melting potato and chunks of cabbage. While we've sautéed our vegetables in plain lard, it's also common to add yet more flavour to the fat by pounding it with garlic, onion and parsley. Many countries serve this soup with smetana (sour cream) and pampushki (little buns topped with garlic).
Making borsch takes time because it requires long, slow simmering to extract maximum flavour and richness. That said, it's one of those dishes that's just as good, if not better, the next day, because the flavours develop over time. And while it's common to serve borsch chilled, our money is on serving it piping hot during the cooler months.
The origin of this European staple may be questionable, but our affection for this magenta-hued beetroot soup is not.