In praise of artichokes
Not everyone has seen a real live artichoke. More likely you’ve seen the “bud”, because that’s what you’re eating when artichokes are served to you in one way or another. A real live artichoke looks as if it were wearing armor to keep invaders away. Well, isn’t that just what it is trying to do? A bud is a flower that is supposed to become a seed and prepare for the next generation. But along you come and decide it’s good to eat and addio next generation. Talking about the flower, the large purple fringed tassels are plain beautiful and remind me of a thistle, for that after all is what an artichoke is.
Artichokes come in various types and sizes. Closed the buds look like finial ornaments for gardens, in terra cotta or stone, although they are often interpreted as pinecones. There are the large heavy globe artichokes, either green or purple, and you need both hands to cradle one. And there are the spear shaped kind with prickly leaves. On market day you’ll find artichokes of whatever kind piled up in the Italian markets, five for the price of four. They may be local with those from Tarquinia the most sought after, although they are also brought up in truckloads from the south of Italy. Then as summer approaches, the baby artichokes make a last stand as busy housewives hasten to preserve them in olive oil for the winter months.
I can’t quite figure out why some make such a fuss about preparing the artichokes. Yet no one complains about shelling peas or fava beans or looking over the spinach you just brought up from the garden to make sure no little black insects are hiding in the leaves and that the gritty sand gets washed away. With artichokes, it’s a matter of ruthlessly peeling off and snapping off the tough outer leaves before decapitating the globe itself. Just remember to wear gloves though so as not to end up with fingers that look as if you’ve been chain-smoking.
So how do you eat an artichoke? For most people it means boiling or steaming a whole artichoke, and then peeling off leaf after leaf, down to the heart, dipping each one in oil and lemon juice or melted butter or mayonnaise, and scraping each leaf off with your teeth before you get to the reward in the form of the tender heart. I remember my first encounter with an artichoke and I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was or how to eat it. That was in 1955 on a Dutch steamship and I was on my first trip to Europe.
Artichokes are native to the western and central Mediterranean and the name goes back to the Arab. Popular in the 16th century when Caterine de’Medici introduced it to France, there are no end of representations of this “vegetable” in paintings, particularly the 17th century still lifes by Giovanna Garzoni, who often paired them with cheese. In addition to making a plate of fried artichokes to be eaten as an antipasto, I used them with tulips for an Easter flower composition. And then of course there’s Giacomo Castelvetro advising the English in 1614 on how to eat vegetables. Artichokes he says can be eaten raw, if very young, or roasted or boiled.
My specialty is fried artichokes. Fried in a light batter, they are as they say to die for. Not the carciofi alla giudea – the ones made in the Jewish ghetto in Rome that look like golden flowers and taste – well they taste like crispy artichoke chips as you peel off one leaf after another. I have also made carciofi alla romana, stewed with wine and oil and stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic and wild mint, or penny royal as I’ve discovered it’s called. No, my fried artichokes can’t be beaten – Riccardo of the restaurant near here is the only one who can match them, but I haven’t yet asked him what his recipe is. Mine – well it includes ice-cold fizzy water and a shot of grappa.
In Italy there’s also a bittersweet aperitif known as Cynar, based on artichokes which in Italian are carciofi. When my kids were small, we used to watch the ads on TV, known as Carosello, a merry-go-round of cartoons and sketches that came on about 9, after which they went to bed. Sometimes you didn’t even know what was being advertised till the end. Like the police inspector, famous for never having made a mistake – not so, he says, taking off his hat and revealing a bald pate. I never used so and so hair cream. For Cynar it was a famous actor sitting on a traffic island with cars whizzing by all around him, calmly sipping on his Cynar, an antidote, as he said, to the wear and tear of modern life.
Artichokes are one of my favorites, no matter how you prepare them, and I can’t wait in spring for them to appear in the market. Thank Heaven they have a long production period and right now, end of April, you can find the small tender ones waiting to be parboiled and then preserved in oil. So, here’s to the artichoke, the carciofo, long may it continue to appear on our tables.