Isn’t it fascinating — the leaves of the humble beetroot, which is a cool-weather biennial that evolved from wild sea beet, was eaten in early times for medicinal reasons.

From the Middle Ages, beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of conditions, particularly illnesses related to digestion and the blood. It was also thought to nullify the effects of garlic breath. Just for the record I tried that after eating a dish of garlic prawns, but my friends assured me it didn’t work.

Now the modern world has woken up to its virtues and is embracing it with as much enthusiasm as the ancients once did —calling it a superfood, owing to the abundance of calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, folic acid, fibre, manganese and potassium it contains — and because it tastes good.

Beetroot is such a rich source of potent antioxidants and nutrients and is so important for cardiovascular health, that it really is worth adding to your diet, particularly as it is so reasonably priced.

At most pick-your-owns a bunch of freshly harvested beetroot will cost very little more than a pound.

It is not generally known that you can get yellow beetroot, too, which in many ways is a more practical choice as it doesn’t leave red stains wherever it goes.

There is very little difference in taste between yellow and red, but for me the flamboyant red roots have the edge over the yellow. There are also some varieties with pink and white stripes.

Because beetroot has a very dense texture, its roots tend to take longer to cook than you would expect. I find the easiest way of cooking them is to wrap them just as they are in tinfoil and place them in a moderate oven for at least a couple of hours or until they feel soft to the touch.

Having removed them from the oven, I allow them to cool for a few minutes. Then, having peeled back a little of the tin foil, I peel off the outer skin. This method keeps the rich flavour trapped in perfectly.

The leaves — when cooked in a little apple juice, as you might cook spinach — are absolutely delicious and make for a glorious second vegetable.

Actually it is the leaves that are the best indicator of the beetroot’s freshness. If they hang limp and lifeless, you should set aside for someone else to pick out.

You are looking for crisp, shiny leaves that couldn’t be anything but fresh. As the leaves wilt rapidly, you will rarely find gleaming fresh ones in the supermarket.

As with most of the fruit and vegetables I use at this time of the year, I buy my beetroot from Medley Manor Farm, in Binsey Lane, Oxford.

If I arrive around mid-morning, I can buy beetroot that has been harvested just a few hours before and which this year tastes particularly rich — something even Charles and Charlie Gee who run this PYO can’t explain.

They put it down to the weather and the fact that each year different crops will flourish for no particular reason. This year these are beetroot and garlic.

In the hot weather, the roots of a beetroot will tend to turn stringy, but as we have not had a particularly hot summer this is not happening this year.

If you can, go for the small beetroots, or those the size of a golf ball as they are easier to cook and have a particularly sweet taste.

When I was a child, beetroot came sliced, packed in little jars and covered with malt vinegar. These rings appeared on most salads, staining the lettuce and cucumber as it sat there dominating the dish.

How I hated it then.

Now we are recognising the joys of beetroot served in ways that enable its true favour to come through and which don’t call for vinegar.

It makes a particularly interesting side dish when dressed with a light sprinkling of orange or lemon juice and olive oil.

The mix of orange slices and pine nuts with the slices of dressed beetroot is popular too.

It can also be grated raw into a salad and served with tossed watercress and orange slices, or roasted with goat’s cheese.

When cut into small cubes and sautéed in oil to which herbs such as marjoram have been added, you will also get a tasty side dish to complement the main meal.

I am rather fond of turning beetroot into a dip by mixing it with spices such as cumin and coriander, having cooked it and then zapped it through the food processor.

Sour cream and lemon juice stirred in at the end adds that final flavour balance, However, like Marmite, beetroot is a vegetable you either love or hate — and it doesn’t mix with everything as it has such a powerful, positive earthy flavour. It is nevertheless always worth trying at this time of the year.