As I write this in the second week of January, the Artichokes are already arriving. Globe Artichokes are not much grown as a commercial crop in the UK. Here they are mostly grown on allotments and in private vegetable gardens but in recent years we have been able to get some English-grown ones for our customers. In southern Europe their harvest runs from May through to September and many Artichokes produce two crops a year. In late winter and early spring, when colour is surely a welcome addition to our roots and greens, Artichokes like the large bulbous romano or mammola from Italy with their violet-tinted leaves are a welcome sight. We can also see purple baby artichokes and spikey Sardinian Spinosi. Right now, it’s the Romano Artichoke that is bringing colour to our arch.
The Artichoke, or Globe 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 artichoke with less bitter notes than the original that became prized in Europe. The first real evidence of artichokes being commercially available is in records from the beginning of the 15th century showing they were shipped from Sicily to Florence. 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. Maybe it was increased travel that 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.
How do you tackle an Artichoke? First, unless they are tightly closed, soak them upside down in a bowl of salted water to dislodge earth or insects. Have half a lemon to hand to rub any cut surfaces as you prepare them, or prepare a bowl of acidulated water. If the artichoke is the spikey type, you’d be well advised to snip off the vicious tips. Larger Artichokes can be trimmed and their stems peeled then steamed. Alternatively, boil them whole and serve with a bowl of aioli to dip each leaf into (the base of the leaves being the edible part). Unless you are planning to eat them whole, 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 tenderest part, then peel it along with the base of the flower.
Young artichokes are very good eaten raw – very thinly sliced, immersed in acidulated water then dried and dressed with a squeeze of lemon, a little salt and some good olive oil (truffle oil is good if you have it). There is an English recipe in Good Things in England by Florence White, dating from the early 1700s for ‘A tart of Artichoke bottoms’ – a pie filled with the most cherished part of the artichoke, a little “minced” onion, and “sweet herbs”, salt, pepper and nutmeg. When cooked, a white sauce thickened with yolk of egg and sharpened with tarragon vinegar is poured in. But it’s in the cuisine of Italy where you will find most recipes. Cook them slowly Roman-style (Carciofi alla Romana), stem end up, until soft in a scant broth of water, olive oil, white wine, a garlic clove, parsley, mint, salt and pepper until the liquid has been absorbed. There is a traditional dish amongst the Jewish community in Rome called Carciofi alla giudea. Small, trimmed, whole artichokes are deep-fried at a high heat so the crispy brown leaves open like a flower. Serve with a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Soon the Artichokes will be joined by early broad beans and peas. Then you can make Vignarola, the classic Italian spring vegetable stew – prepare the artichokes, cut the base and stems into quarters and add to a pan of sliced spring onions, softened in olive oil, adding a little wine or water and a pinch of salt . Cook, covered, for 15 minutes before adding peas and blanched broad beans. A ball of milky mozzarella di bufala or creamy burrata is often served with it.