Photo by Rick Gush
My vegetable garden is sort of like my wallet in that I’m never completely happy with how much it contains. When I have a small patch with six types of vegetables, I wish I had seven or eight. Now that I have more than ten times the space that I used to have, I still don’t have room for all the vegetables I’d like to be growing.
One crop I’m not growing this year is artichokes, Cynara scolymus, known in Italian as carciofi (car-chaeu- fee). The old patch was in the way of progress, so I took it out last fall.
Perhaps I’ll find a place for a new artichoke bed this spring among the newly cleared section on the property line with the abandoned lot next door. I’m already encroaching on the neighbor’s land in a few places, but if I didn’t clear that land it would be covered quickly with berry vines and scrub trees.
The artichoke season is just starting here and the early artichokes from Sardinia and Sicily are already in the markets.
When I lived in California, all the artichokes I grew and ate were the big, round, almost spineless Green Globe variety, which accounts for maybe 99.9 percent of the commercial crop in the states. There are some similar globe-type artichokes in the vegetable markets here, but far more common are the spiny varieties.
Photo by Rick Gush
The most famous Italian artichoke is the Violetto, a variety grown near Venice. The area around Rome is also a big artichoke growing region, and they have their own Violettos and a few extra special varieties that sell for as much as ten euros a head!
My wife makes a number of different artichoke dishes, like vegetable pies, salads and soups, and she, like most frugal Ligurians, always uses the less expensive spiny types. She chops the spiny tops off the flowers and then cuts up the whole head. She also uses the long stems, just peeling off the tough outer covering. Around Rome, stuffed artichokes are favored, and deep fried artichokes are a tradition in some areas.
Artichokes are another vegetable plant that was most likely first domesticated in Italy. The Greeks and Romans cultivated cardoon, the wild cousin, but the first mention of cardoon-like plants being grown for the consumption of the flower heads was in Sicily in the first century A.D.
In Italy, lots of cardoon is still grown here, and the big leaf stems are blanched by heaping up dirt around the plants. Cardoon stems are common in the markets in the fall, while artichokes appear in the markets in the early spring until almost summer. Artichoke cultivation didn’t reach as far north as Tuscany until the 1400s, but soon thereafter, Spain, France and most of the rest of Europe was eating artichokes.
My friend Renato at the Rapallo vegetable market, shown in the first photo cleaning some Sardinian artichokes, tells me that this won’t be a good year for artichokes from Liguria because the extra cold winter damaged the crop. So I can perhaps take some comfort in the fact that maybe we’re not missing so much by not growing artichokes this year. But next year…?