Photo ©Evie Saffron Strands
Globe Artichokes are not seen as a commercial crop in the UK. The “artichoke’ we do grow in volume is the Jerusalem Artichoke – a knobbly tuber which couldn’t be more different in its growth. Many Artichokes produce two crops a year. Just as we are coming to the end of our winter and southern Europe is welcoming spring, the greens and purples of Globe Artichokes, like the Spinosa and Romaneschi/Mammole from Italy are a welcome sight. They are followed by other varieties and, in autumn, the second crop of some come through our doors.
The artichoke is the edible immature flower of a cultivated thistle. They grow readily in dry conditions and light soils and spread prolifically in Mediterranean areas. The Arabs named them al-kharsuf, from which comes the names carciofi in Italian, alcachofa in Spanish, and artichoke in English. But it was the Italians who developed the varieties of globe artichoke with different flavours that became prized in Europe. By at least the early 17th century they were grown and appreciated in England, before mysteriously falling out of favour for a while towards the end of the 1900’s. Increased travel, perhaps, revived the British taste for the artichoke’s well-guarded heart. Along with Asparagus, the Artichoke is considered one of the finest vegetables we can grow.
We have Spiky Sardinian Artichokes as well as Purple Romaneschi Artichokes arriving as I write in the second week of February. The Spiky Sardinian Artichokes, or Carciofi Spinoso Sardo, look distinctly different from other varieties. Their conical, elongated heads bear the most vicious of yellow-red spines on both their bracts and leaves – a “two-pairs-of-gloves-job” as Italian Chef Carla Tomasi puts it. The yield for this variety is lower than for other cultivars. These days the Sardinian Artichoke has DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status, so strict production rules apply to where and how they are grown. The cultivar is, however, also grown on the island of Sicily where they are known as Spinoso do Palermo. Carla Tomasi believes …” whoever tastes a spiky choke from Sardinia falls in love with it, even if it does take dexterity and determination to get to it”. Their nutty, buttery flavour is the prize for negotiating those ferocious thorns.
Larger Artichokes can be steamed whole and served with aioli – the spiny variety should have their tips snipped off first. To use in stews and salads, the outer, tougher leaves should be removed and the top third of the flower cut away. Check to see if there is any fluffy ‘choke’ in the centre and, if so, scrape it away with a teaspoon. Cut the stem, leaving a good few inches of the most tender part, then peel it along with the base of the flower. As soon as you have done so, immerse the artichoke in acidulated water. Cut into quarters, they are delicious fried until browned with young new potatoes. Alternatively, slice them into a gratin dish, cover with cream, thyme leaves and a little butter. Then top with grated parmesan and bake in a medium oven. When artichokes are very young and tender, and have not yet developed a prickly choke, they can be simmered whole at a low temperature in olive oil until soft. They can then be fried at a high heat so the leaves open like a flower - a sprinkleof salt and a squeeze of lemon juice is all that is needed for serving.
I asked Carla Tomasi specifically how to use the Spinoso Sardo cultivar. She regards them as the perfect choke to enjoy sliced paper thin and served as a salad and reminds us the stalks are very tender and delicious braised as an accompaniment for roast lamb.