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'A' is for Artichaut (and its cousin Cardoon)

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02/28/2006
'A' is for Artichaut (and its cousin Cardoon)

Caught between moving on to other letters of the vegetable alphabet, or writing about yet another fascinating 'A' vegetable, I've opted for the latter. Every time I prepare an artichoke, I marvel about the domestication of this plant. Even in its modern form, selected over hundreds of years for human consumption, preparing an artichoke or eating a whole one presents a redoubtable task. And if you have even slightest level of botanic awareness, you quickly figure out that you're in fact eating a sort of thistle. Even today's tamed form retains more than a few vestiges of its wild past--thorns at the tips of the bracts, the 'choke' (foin, or 'hay' in French) at the center of the artichoke, which must be removed before eating the heart.

Although many people think the artichoke got its name because it has something which makes you choke at its heart, in fact it comes to us from the ancient Spanish word alcarchofa, which in turn came from the Arabic al harsuf. This etymology appropriately reflects the origin of the artichoke as we know it today, which was in 12th century Islamic Andalusia.



But what about the trajectory of the plant from wild thistle to (relatively) tame artichoke? Theophrastus, in the third century BC, noted the consumption of a wild thistle, both its leaf ribs and its "receptacle" (today's artichoke bottom). Subsequent selection of wild thistles for improved comestibility of precisely these two plant parts which led, in the first case, to the cardoon, and in the second, to the artichoke.

History. Pliny, writing in the first century AD, remarks on the very lucrative culture, around Carthage and Cordoue, of carduus for its buds. Also in the first century, Columelle was one of the first agronomists to record advise on how to grow ciinara for bud production. He recommended sowing in March or September, or planting offshoots in the fall, and harvesting the buds in spring--a pretty exact representation of the timetable for growing artichokes in the Mediterranean basin.

Early artichokes next show up during Roman times in the culinary writings of Apicius. He recommends cooking the leaf ribs with oil and chopped hard-cooked eggs, or with chopped fresh herbs. The buds, meanwhile, receive more extended mention and cooking recommendations, including cooking in wine, in honey, with anise and green coriander... Traces of these recipes are still clearly apparent in Provenal artichoke cookery of today.

But the fortunes of the artichoke seem to have followed those of the Roman Empire, for at its dissolution, our semi-domesticated thistle disappears from the public record, plunging into obscurity for almost a thousand years. Apparently, however, its cultivation continued in what is now Tunisia and in Andalusia. The Arabs arrived in Andalusia at the beginning of the thirteenth century, bringing with them highly sophisticated horticultural knowledge, new culinary habits, and a wealth of food plants, including rice and sugar cane from Iraq; watermelon and sorghum from Africa; the lemon from Persia; spinach from Nepal; and eggplant from India.

Once established in Andalusia, the Arabs set about selecting the modern artichoke, noting that copious irrigation assured more and bigger buds (modern-day gardeners take note!) It was under this Arab cultivation that the artichoke and the cardoon diverged into two different plants once and for all.

From Andalusia, it wasn't far to Sicily, where the artichoke and cardoon next turned up and from where they spread northward into the rest of Italy and farther up into the Provence and Languedoc regions of France. Contrary to information often cited, it wasn't Catherine de Medici who introduced the artichoke to France. But, passionate about the taste of this, her favorite vegetable, she did bring the plant into enormous vogue.

From 1530, artichoke gardens were to be found around Lyon and Cavaillon, but the buds produced were small and decidedly not plentiful, rendering the artichoke of the period a true luxury item. The 19th century saw the peak of production of both the artichoke and cardoon in France. Lyon remains the epicenter of both cardoon production and appreciation, growing about 100 metric tons of modern, spineless cardoons per year.

Two types of artichokes are consumed in France today. The large, familiar globe or camus artichoke is primarily produced in Brittany, while the much smaller, purple-tinged, and infinitely more flavorful poivrade is grown in Provence and other regions in the South.



The poivrade is traditionally sold in bunches of 5, with a good hank of stem and leaves attached. It is so small that it has no or next to no choke, and after removal of the outer leaves, a good half of the inner leaves can be left in place as they are entirely tender. The poivrade is also delicious thinly sliced and served raw. It has a delicate bouquet of flavors mingling new-mown hay and hazelnut with a pronounced yet delicious note of bitterness. In short, the poivrade has a flavor much closer to that of its wild predecessors than the emasculated globe artichoke. The primary poivrade variety is 'Violet de Provence.'

Botany. Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) and cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) are both members of the Compositae, the huge daisy family. And in fact, when you eat an artichoke, you are eating in essence a flower bud. To see an artichoke in bloom, it suffices to place the stem of a reasonably fresh artichoke in water and wait. Often, the flower will continue to mature and open into the violet blue, giant thistle that it actually is. Cardoons have flowers resembling precisely those of artichokes, only smaller and with nonfleshy bracts, which likewise open into familiar blue thistle blooms.



The plants resemble each other as well, with the most obvious difference being the more deeply dissected, feathery leaf margins of cardoons and, sometimes, their more silvery color. In fact, cardoon is such a handsome plant that it is often grown as an ornamental, and can often be spotted in French urban bedding schemes among the dahlias and verbenas.

Almost all species of what we would call thistles worldwide are edible. Only the glue thistle (Atractylis gummifera) is downright poisonous, while blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus), a medicinal plant, can be strongly purgative. Among other thistles, the receptacle of the flower bud, the peeled stems, and the leaf ribs are all edible and often delicious.

Carlina acaulis, or dwarf thistle, a native of the Mediterranean basin and adjacent mountains, is a striking plant. Terribly thorny, its leaves are white-veined and remain in rosette, with a single large bloom borne snugly stemless in their midst. Yet, if you can bear to remove the thorns, the carline is quite edible and delicious. I have seen it and other wild thistles for sale in Berber markets in the mountains of Morocco.

The infamous Scotch thistle (Onopordium acanthium), viciously spiny, is in fact almost entirely edible. This plant bears the humorous name pet d'ane (donkey fart) in France, undoubtedly because it was resown by donkey's droppings. Donkeys are famously the only animals who will eat thistles.

Another thistle, Cirsium oleraceum, is known in French as the 'potager' thistle. This thistle used to be cultivated in Ireland for its young shoots. In fact, this barely spiny member of the family is entirely edible: buds, shoots, leaves, and leaf ribs.



Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), used since antiquity to treat liver ailments, remains part of the modern herbal pharmacopaeia in the same capacity. It is one of the most beautiful thistles, with wide, jagged leaves dramatically marbled with white.

Growing artichokes. The artichoke is a perennial plant that, with care, is hardy to USDA Zone 6 and occasionally into Zone 5, if given perfect drainage and dry winter protection. Each plant requires a good square yard of space. Even if you don't have room for a whole row of artichokes in your vegetable garden, you can always include a plant or two in a mixed border as the plant's bold silver foliage is highly ornamental.



Choose a spot with deep, fertile, and very well-drained soil. Soggy soil--especially over the winter months--sounds the death-knell for the artichoke. Full sun is essential. The artichoke is salt tolerant, and can do well in windy sites in Zone 7 and southward. But...not too far south, as the plant requires a chilling period to induce flowering. It is therefore not suitable for tropical areas.

In sandy soils, the buds produced will be smaller, while in clay soils, bud production will be delayed. Either way, just be sure to feed your artichoke generously with compost or manure, and to water it regularly during dry periods. As your artichoke plants, being perennial, will remain in place, don't stint on soil preparation. Loosen the soil to a depth of at least 2 feet, and work in plenty of compost (about 10 pounds per plant). If your soil is heavy, plant in 'buttes' or raised beds to promote drainage.

Artichokes can be easily grown from seed, which germinates fast and easily. But seed-grown progeny are often quite variable. Of course, this variability can be interesting, as you may "discover" an interesting variety. But the most reliable way to propagate artichokes is by planting offshoots of mother plants. Plant in May after danger of frost is past. Make sure to firm the soil carefully around the plants and water deeply, as air pockets around the roots will kill the plants.

Such offshoots are naturally produced by the mother plants and must be removed in order to keep your plants productive. Use a sharp knife, preferably with a curved blade (such as a grafting knife) to cut through the rhizome cleanly underground, separating it from the main plant. If you are going to replant the offshoots, cut their foliage back to about 6 inches.

In cold climates, winter protection is essential. In late November or early December, cut back the leaves to 10-12 inches from the ground. In Zone 6 and northward, mound soil around the base of the leaves, being careful not to cover the crown. Cover the crowns with a dry airy mulch such as oak leaves. Covering the mulch with nonwoven rowcover fabric (not plastic!) helps keep the mulch fluffy and adds an extra degree of protection. Gradually begin to uncover the plants in March. Do this bit by bit to harden off the new growth.

The only problem I have had growing artichokes in France is a small underground rodent called a mulot that resembles a large meadow vole. These little beasts like to grow fat munching on my artichokes' big, fleshy roots. I have to check regularly that this not happened. My method is to plunge a hose into the soil around the plants. Not only does this assure a deep watering, but any rodent tunnels will quickly cave in, alerting me to the problem. I then have to re-firm soil around the roots and take agressive measures such as trapping or occasionally--I admit--poison bait. Occasionally, aphids attack the terminal growth, but in my organic garden, they quickly disappear on their own.

Harvest your artichokes with a sharp knife, leaving several inches of stem on the bud. The base of the stem, when peeled, is often almost as succulent as the heart. Cut the buds when the bracts are still tight and well before they start to open out, which is your signal that the artichoke is about to bloom and has become too tough to eat.

Once harvested, artichokes are surprisingly fragile. As in the garden, they are very susceptible to drying out. Keeping their stems in slightly sugared water in the refrigerator is the best technique if you must harvest several days before using. Ideally, of course, cut them just before cooking. Don't hesitate to cut small as well as large buds. They often have no choke at all and can be cooked whole or halved after removing only the outer leaves, the ends of the remaining leaves, and peeling the stems.



Artichoke varieties. In France, many different varieties of artichokes are grown. And since these plants hybridize easily, both among themselves and with other members of their genus, many local variations exist (as I've noticed by visiting markets in different parts of the country). 'Capitoul' is an ancient variety particular to the Aude region that has been saved from disappearance by a handful of market gardeners.

'Gros Vert de Laon' is an extra-hardy globe type adapted to growing in Northern France. 'Romagna Violet' has elongated buds that are deep purple in color, while 'Romanesco' has round globes that are just tinged with purple. All of the preceding are seed strains.

The two varieties grown for poivrade production (the small, tender, wild-tasting artichokes discussed earlier) are 'Vert de Provence' and 'Violet de Provence', obviously green and purple, respectively. The major artichoke variety grown is the huge globe Camus de Bretagne.' All of these are exclusively vegetatively propagated.

Growing cardoons. If you're an adventurous gardener, cook, and gastronome, then you'll want to grow cardoons. Besides affording you a flavor that is truly unique in the vegetable world, you'll have the pleasure of harvesting this unusual vegetable in December and throughout the winter in mild areas.

Unlike the artichoke, cardoon is best grown from seed. Cardoons grown from root division tend to be tough and go to flower, while seed grown plants remain in rosettes and have leaf ribs that are much more tender Hardiness, soil, and water requirements are pretty much identical to those of the artichoke. Plants require a square yard of space.



Plants will establish slowly, and seem not to grow for the first few weeks after transplanting. However, be patient, always watering abundantly, an essential practice to keep the leaf ribs tender. Mulch the plants to control weeds. Try to water evenly and regularly, as alternating wet and dry periods stress the plant and cause it to produce overly bitter or coriaceous ribs.

In October, when the plant has stopped growing, it is time to blanch your cardoons. Blanching removes the bitterness from the leaf ribs (which is the part you eat). To blanch your cardoons, first remove all damaged or rotten leaves. Then bunch the leaves up together and tie them at two or three intervals with soft twine or raffia into a tall cylindrical shape. Now wrap this leaf cylinder with burlap, cardboard, or pieces of weed-barrier fiber, tying the covering in place. This prevents photosynthesis from taking place and makes the bitter compounds in the leaves disappear. Just a tuft of leaf tips should emerge at the top of the wrapping. During the blanching period, check the plants frequently as they are more susceptible to rotting during this period. If you have grown quite a few cardoons and live in a mild winter area, plan to blanch them in a staggered fashion. Once blanched, they must be harvested.

After 3 or 4 weeks under cover, your cardoons are ready to begin harvesting. Sever the root just below soil level with a stout knife.

Artichokes and cardoons in the kitchen. Both these vegetables are characterized by a slight note of bitterness which is extremely pleasant. This bitter quality accounts for the hepatotonic properties of artichoke, cardoon, and most other thistles. Bitterness stimulates the release of bile and so promotes digestion.

The flavor of cardoon is extremely close to that of the artichoke. It marries beautifully with black olives, anchovies, preserved lemons and olive oil, but also with the richer notes of crme frache and bechamel sauce. It is best served by itself rather than mixed with other vegetables.

To prepare cardoons for cooking, remove any bruised or ragged outer stems. Remove the leaves from their ribs. Then, using a sharp paring knife, thinly pare the backs of the ribs, removing the tough fibers that run along them. Cut the ribs into two- to three-inch sections and drop them into acidulated water as you work, as cardoon oxidizes only slightly less quickly than artichoke.

Artichokes, on the other hand, partner with fava beans and also with fennel. Thyme, lemon, garlic, olive oil, and a splash of white wine are standard flavorings. In France, the artichoke is rarely consumed whole, but rather almost always "turned" to remove the tough leaves and reveal the heart. If you're lucky enough to have poivrade artichokes, peel the stems into 2-3" points.

Artichokes oxidize almost instantly, turning brown unless you rub them with lemon juice or drop them in acidulated water. Always use a stainless steel knife to prepare them and cook them in an enameled pan. Turning artichokes will stain the skin around your nails if you don't wear gloves.

If the only way you've ever enjoyed artichokes is by boiling them whole in water until tender, you've got a new taste treat in store if you turn the artichokes and prepare the hearts braised in olive oil with a bit of pancetta, onion, garlic, thyme, and a splash of white wine. Their flavor is several times more intense than that of the boiled version.

Perhaps no other cookbook author has given us as many wonderful recipes for artichokes and cardoons as Paula Wolfert. Check out her Cooking of Southwest France, 'Mediterranean Cooking,' and The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen for myriads of mouthwatering ideas for these two denizens of the Mediterranean: Artichoke and Cardoon.

A final note: any artichoke flower forgotten in the garden and left to go to seed will serve as a natural birdfeeder through the winter months, until the finches have exhausted the plump, oil rich seeds.







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