The globe artichoke, Cynara scolymus, is a stately plant with a Mediterranean air and wonderful silver-grey serrated leaves
Leave it to flower and its buds erupt into magnificent thistle sprays of rich purple, each one a good 12cm across. It’s as good to eat as it is to admire, making a grand addition to the veg patch or perennial border.
Growing them isn’t hard if you have a bit of space, a sunny spot, and rich soil. There are about a dozen species of these large, thistle-like perennials, the best known being the cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) and the globe artichoke pictured here. Cardoons have longer stems, which are edible, but the flower buds are not. They’re popular in Spain and said to taste of a cross between celery and artichoke, although I haven’t tried them. Both species make brilliant border plants, and cardoons are more shade tolerant than the globes. Try them at the back of borders, or in the centre of an island bed, where their leaves will be among the first to put on a show in February. Combined with other silver-leaved plants such as stachys, lavender, santolina, Lychnis coronaria, and nepeta, they’ll create a lovely hot, Mediterranean vibe.
The conquering Muslims in Spain were big on artichoke farming, and probably brought better cultivated forms of it with them from Northern Africa. The Arabic name for it is al-karsufa, which their Spanish subjects working the farms adopted as alcarchofa, and that name proliferated through French and Italian into the ideal English form: hartichoak.
There are allegations that Zeus, up to his usual tricks with mortal women, scooped up Cynara when he saw her on a beach during a visit to his brother, Poseidon, and brought her to live with him on Mount Olympus. At some point, Cynara sneaked away to visit her mother, and Zeus, harsh but fair, showed his disapproval by turning her into an artichoke, declaring that henceforth Greeks were to call all artichokes Cynara (ankinára in modern Greek). However, plausible though that history is, it seems to have been invented in the second half of the 20th century by a pair of rogue artichoke enthusiasts, the Castelli siblings, authors of my favourite book on artichokes, The Sensuous Artichoke: Magic of the Artichoke, and distributors of Cynar artichoke liqueur, which was invented in 1952 and honestly needs all the marketing it can get.
In Rome, during the Renaissance, renowned artichoke promoter Caravaggio ‘grabbed an earthenware dish [of artichokes] and hit me on the cheek at the level of my moustache’, according to a 1604 statement given by a waiter to the police. Four of the delicacies had been cooked in butter, the others in oil. Caravaggio asked which were which, and when advised to "give them a sniff and see", he graciously helped the waiter to inspect the artichokes more closely on his behalf, at which point the waiter tripped, fell, and struck the dish with his moustache, according to a statement given by Caravaggio to the police.
I understand. I can get quite emotional about artichokes too. I remember my mum teaching me how to eat them when I was nine or ten. She’d always enjoyed life’s exotic forays: buying a single avocado from Islington’s Chapel Market in the sixties and eating it with a teaspoon and a sprinkling of Saxa or, after a brief period living in France in the early seventies, growing globe artichokes in her garden in the Shropshire hills. The ritual to make the most of a mature artichoke is a little more complex than we’re now used to, but that’s one of the reasons I love them: slowing down, anticipating, and then appreciating each small mouthful.
To eat them whole, pick your artichokes when they’re 10-15cm across, the scaly petals just starting to open outwards. Then cook in a large pot of boiling salted water for 30-40 minutes, or until you can pull a petal easily away from the base. At the table, you’ll need two bowls: one for your artichoke, another for all the bits you can’t eat. Plus a knife, fork, teaspoon, a small bowl of melted salted butter (some prefer vinaigrette, but each to their own), and napkins: like eating lobster, it can get messy.
Pluck the petals one by one, working your way round to the tender centre, dipping the base of each in butter and gently scraping the flesh from its base with your teeth, before discarding the remainder. The soft, slightly astringent but creamy flesh should come away easily. As you reach the centre, the petals will take on a violet blush, and become softer, more transparent. You’ll be able to pull away three or four at a time, dunking them into the butter before chewing off most of the tender leaf. Stop when you get to the hairy ‘choke’. If you’re dextrous, and it isn’t too hot, this can be eased away from the base with two thumbs, pushing away from you to release it satisfyingly from the base. If not, use a teaspoon to help. The prize that remains is the gloriously nutty, earthy heart. Which should be cut into dainty morsels and savoured with the rest of the butter. You’ve earned it.
There are plenty of local ways with local artichokes, mostly for local people. In Spain and Italy, where they grow them by the barrel-load, many are harvested young as a salad, sliced thinly and eaten raw with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon. Or they’re trimmed, quartered and fried in olive oil and garlic: added with decadent abandon to omelettes, paellas and braises, or battered and served hot out of the fryer with a picture cold beer under a postcard warm sunset.
One of my favourites ways to eat artichokes is this delicious tapas recipe, which pairs them with peas and Spanish serrano ham:
Alcachofas con jamón y guisantes (artichokes with ham and peas)
6 young artichokes
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 slices serrano ham (or bacon will do), roughly chopped
A glass of white wine
A few handfuls of frozen peas
- Prepare each artichoke by cutting off the top half, clicking off the lower leaves and scooping out the choke with a teaspoon. Trim around the base with a sharp knife to expose the pale flesh. Quarter and add to a bowl of water and lemon juice, to stop them blackening while you prepare the rest.
- Pour a good glug of olive oil into a nonstick frying pan, add the garlic and fry gently for 30 seconds. Add the ham and cook, stirring, for a minute or two.
- Tip in the prepared artichoke quarters and toss together. Then add the wine and enough boiling water or vegetable stock to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for 20-30 minutes, or until the artichokes are tender.
- Add the peas and cook for another 5-10 minutes. Season to taste and eat warm, with lemon wedges, hunks of good crusty bread, and a glass of wine.
Written by: Francesca Clarke