Giuseppe Turi grew up on a farm in Puglia in southern Italy, where his family had the pick of fresh produce. The first artichokes would appear in November and, depending on the variety, were around until early May when the custom was to lightly char the young artichokes on a barbecue and eat them with the green leaves stripped from young garlic bulbs.
I try a take on this in his Putney restaurant, Enoteca Turi, which he and his British wife, Pam, opened 25 years ago. He serves the charred artichokes, very tender and petite purple globes, with wild garlic today, their sweet flesh and meaty texture cut through with the sharpness of the bright green ribbons of garlic.
Giuseppe tells me that the artichoke is his favourite vegetable, just sneaking ahead of asparagus and cime di rapa. His restaurant is paying tribute to the unusual-looking vegetable – or perhaps we should call it a flower, as officially it is a species of thistle cultivated as a food – with a menu of artichoke dishes to mark the end of the season.
It's likely that many of us know artichokes as the large green globe variety, typically from France, which we boil and eat with our favourite version of a buttery, garlicky, mayonnaise-y sauce, stripping the leaves back and sucking out the flesh of each, one by one, before finally exposing the tender heart, hidden beneath its fuzzy, furry and inedible choke. That or slices of pickled artichoke heart strewn across a pizza.
Artichokes appear tricky to prepare in any other ways. Their woody stalks and tough leaves don't lend themselves to today's time-poor cooking but, for the inquisitive cook, they offer impressive rewards.
Giuseppe shows me the three varieties used by his executive chef Michele Blasi. Each has its own charm, but the crates of small violetto artichokes, the size of golf balls, with their deep indigo stain, are the prettiest. The season for these, the most common Italian artichoke, is November until early May, and they are grown in Puglia and Sicily, though you will find French and a few British violetti from May onwards.
The romanesco artichokes, often called mammola to refer to the first and best artichoke a plant produces (which achieves the best prices) resemble the round green globes, but have inky leaves.
The spinoso has long stalks and a leaner head protected by thorny leaves, which spike their handlers readily and frequently, just like their cousins the thistles. Spinoso artichokes are harvested in Sardinia from May, but we're eating the Ligurian variety today, spinoso d'Albenga, which only arrive for a few weeks from March and are much sweeter.
I watch Michele shave slices of this prized Albenga artichoke on to rounds of bresaola, a dish finished with Castelmagno cheese and sorrel leaves. He also deep fries them and fills them with a salt cod brandade, laying the three oily blooms on top of a sweet tomato coulis.
His play on a pasta carbonara is like a warm hug from someone wearing cashmere: cappelletti pillows are filled with a carbonara sauce, the bacon replaced with smoky scamorza cheese, and placed on a raft of an intense artichoke cream, made from the stems of the plant, and adorned with wedges of sautéed artichoke.
There are also dishes of artichoke strudel with mozzarella and parmesan zabaione, an open lasagne with scallops, brill and artichoke, and a rabbit served with baby artichoke alla romana. This is one of the most common ways of cooking artichokes in Italy, where they are braised in oil, garlic and an acidulated stock.
Another common method is artichokes alla Giudia, where they are deep fried whole and presented like a blooming flower on the plate.
We don't really think of artichokes as homegrown produce. When Oliver Gladwin, who cooks seasonal British produce in his London restaurants, Rabbit and The Shed, went in search of some, he found that artichokes grown here cost around one third more than those cultivated on the continent. According to Gladwin, this is primarily because they need a lot of space, though the weather is also a factor.
"I cook seasonal British produce and like to feel what I'm buying," he explains. "Eventually, we found some artichokes in Sussex and I needed to use them to produce a good British dish, so I put the artichoke with butter beans, red onion jam and Wiltshire ham, which is rich and sweet and fragrant and fulfilling. Fundamentally, artichokes are one of the most delicious green, summery vegetables you can use."
When I speak to Etienne Bruwer, executive chef at caterer and restaurant-operator Rhubarb, his team is prepping artichokes for a party that evening, where he will serve artichokes barigoule – a Provencal artichoke stew.
"Unfortunately, artichokes don't get the respect and recognition that asparagus does, but they should," he says. "With foodies, they have a good reputation, but prepping them from raw takes a lot of skill and hard work, so only top-end restaurants can do them."
Where does this leave eager home cooks? Giuseppe shows me how to prepare an artichoke, explaining that a common mistake is to yank the outer leaves out by their roots, which means that you lose the delicious flesh in the base of each leaf. Instead, you should snap the outer leaves back before pulling them off, preserving the bottom part. Then slice the top of the leaves off – the part above the heart – and continue to pare back the plant until you have removed all the dark-coloured leaves.
Carl Saxton owns the organic fruit and veg wholesaler Wholegood, which supplies Planet Organic and Daylesford, as well as Ocado's veg box scheme. This year's artichokes will be ready in a week's time.
"We work to support growers producing challenging crops," he says. "We need to include things like artichokes in our veg boxes because our job is to provide interesting and seasonal produce, but you risk alienating customers.
"I think veg box customers are up to this challenge, but we always put in at least two recipes with unusual things like artichokes."
The artichoke grew wild in Greek and Roman times and was considered a delicacy, prized for its aphrodisiac qualities. The Arabs were the first to begin planting the species we eat today, and it is still considered to have many health benefits: it is rich in iron, can act as a digestive aid, and may play a part in improving liver function and reducing cholesterol. Artichokes are difficult to match with wines because of this high level of iron, and Giuseppe recommends pairing them with something fresh.
We have Zeus to thank for this delicious vegetable. Apparently, when he fell for Cynara, a beautiful nymph, she also provoked in him a furious jealousy. He transformed her into this unusual plant, with pretty but vicious and prickly leaves and a sweet heart, impenetrable to all but the truly dedicated.
If you think you might be a fairweather artichoke fan, less dedicated than Zeus or an experienced chef perhaps, there are a few shortcuts: boiling globes in an aromatic stock and eating them leaf by leaf is the obvious one, or you could pour yourself a slosh of Cynar, an aperitif like Campari but with an artichoke base, which at Enoteca Turi you can enjoy as a granita.
Enoteca Turi's artichoke menu runs until 2 May, from £29.50 for two courses. Enotecaturi.com
By Giuseppe Turi
Make the most of artichoke season by pickling them to use in the months ahead. Bring to the boil one litre of white wine, one litre of white wine vinegar, two litres of water and 20g salt. Add in your artichokes - around 15 baby artichoke hearts for this volume of liquid - and blanch. This could take as little as four minutes up to seven or eight minutes. Let them dry on kitchen towel for 24 hours. Turn them occasionally but don't touch with your hands. Pack them into a sterilised jar with mint and seal with oil. When the oil has sunk to the bottom of the jar, top up until full.Reuse content