Like many readers, I suspect, I travelled to Mediterranean parts this summer, finding myself yet again in a food market staring wistfully at the baskets full of spiky green globe artichokes. While locals cheerfully stuffed two or three in their bags, as naturally as an English person might purchase a potato or some broccoli, I was left once again to wonder at the mysteries of this giant edible thistle, a foodstuff exported around the world by the French, Italians and Spanish, but only taking very shallow root in Anglo-Saxon lands.
"They look labour intensive and we're not good at that," says food writer Simon Hopkinson. "Generally on the Continent they're sold with their stalk on and everything, so somebody will look at that and say 'Well, what do we do with that?' I knew what I do what to do from when I was about 15 through going to France with my parents."
Hopkinson is in a small minority of Britons in this respect; the preparation, cooking and eating of the Cynara scolymus remains as mysterious to most of us as the roots of its Latin name. It is one of those culinary rites of passage, like shucking your first oyster, and one that I have personally put off until middle age. I even grow the things on my allotment, but when it comes to harvesting I'm left in the same state of funk as when I visit a Mediterranean food market. The thing looks such a brute.
The late Christopher Lloyd, recalling guests at his home, Great Dixter in East Sussex, once wrote: "There are stuffier adults who are nervous of and unfamiliar with artichokes but don't like to admit it. They pretend they are a lot of fuss about nothing." And history is littered with artichoke-phobes, including Pliny the Elder, who described the vegetable as "one of the earth's monstrosities", and the German poet Goethe, who noted during his travels in Italy that "The peasants eat thistles ... a practice I could never adopt."
Perhaps part of our native unfamiliarity with the foodstuff is related to a decline in the number of restaurants offering it in its most familiar guise – plainly boiled and served as "artichoke vinaigrette". "When I first came to London," says Simon Hopkinson, "you could go to restaurants which had much simpler menus where it would just say 'artichoke vinaigrette'. You would order that and do all the laborious – actually it's not laborious because it's lovely – picking off the leaves and dipping them in a large pot of vinaigrette. There's a place down in Bayswater, a restaurant called Hereford Road, just off Westbourne Grove, and it almost always has artichoke vinaigrette on the menu. "
Indeed Tom Pemberton, chef-patron of Hereford Road, who talked me through the process of preparing and cooking artichoke vinaigrette (see below), says that the dish is in great demand. "We have a large front window here and we tend to put the artichokes there to keep them at room temperature, rather than in the kitchen downstairs," he says. "People walk past, see them and then come in having not booked because of the artichokes in the window. We didn't do it as an advertising thing – it was totally coincidental."
Pemberton, erstwhile head chef of the critically beloved St John in Clerkenwell, has guided many an artichoke virgin through the intricate business of devourment. "Some people aren't sure what to do with them and there's the whole worry about the choke, which we leave in. Lots of places take it out."
Ah, yes, the choke – the hairy, inedible part of this bud, which, if left to grow, will bloom into the familiar purplish-blue thistle flower. "I think it's nice to have an artichoke that hasn't been interfered with," says Pemberton. "For the choke to be taken out some chef has to stick his hand in there and start pulling it around, whereas if you know your artichokes you know the choke comes off quite easily. It's quite satisfying – like pulling off a pair of tights, or something."
Indeed there is something of the striptease about working oneself towards the choke, a hairy mound with inescapable connotations. Like a Victorian roué impatiently making his way through the endless layers of silk underwear of a coquettish conquest – there is an undeniable sexual element to denuding a cooked artichoke. But then there are more ways to eat an artichoke than boiling it. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall advocates barbecuing them. His wife's parents in the Loire Valley eat small, young artichokes raw – dipping the leaves in salty butter. "There is a slight astringency," he says, "but also a delicious, raw nuttiness that you don't get with cooked artichokes. An added, child-pleasing bonus? They make your mouth turn purple and your wee smell funny."
In Venice, the first, tiny artichokes of the year are a luxurious seasonal speciality, says Simon Hopkinson. "In late March and early April, there are tiny artichokes in the Rialto market harvested from the islands of the lagoon. These are known as "castraure", with its connotations of castration. At Harry's Bar, six are trimmed to the size of small corks, baked with olive oil and simply served warm on a small plate. They are delicious but outrageously expensive."
In his book, The Vegetarian Option, Hopkinson includes a recipe for artichoke soup – a recipe that will remain just that for most us due the lack of availability of artichoke hearts – ones not marinated in olive oil, at least. "If you go to Greece – the Peloponnese – every supermarket you go into has these packets of artichoke hearts, all perfectly trimmed, like little pale green saucers. It's something you never get here unfortunately."
Indeed artichokes as a whole aren't that easy to track down in the UK. I couldn't find any at a large Tesco near where I live, an area with a well-established French community. Waitrose is the main supplier, with 55 per cent of market share, and sales up nearly 50 per cent on last year. Its spokesperson says they will be in stock until mid-September, and what's more, they are British grown, unlike those at Hereford Road.
"Unusually for us, because we're very much a British restaurant, ours aren't from the UK," admits Tom Pemberton. "It might be ignorance my part but I don't know of anywhere where you can get a consistent supply of UK-grown artichokes. I tend to get mine from Brittany." Simon Hopkinson agrees about the scarcity. "I don't think commercial growers think there's a market for them and fair enough, there isn't," he admits. "I don't think it's going to be changing any minute – apart from anything else there is quite a large market in jars of little preserved artichokes. They've got too much vinegar in them – they're slightly pickled, or marinated in olive oil, and they're not nice."
Hopkinson used to get his from Secretts, a pick-your-own farm in Surrey, but they no longer provide them. Perhaps the best alternative is to grow them yourself – they give stature to flower borders, and if you can't bring yourself to eat the buds, then at least you have a very handsome thistle. "They are a thistle," says Pemberton, "so there is something about them that says 'don't eat'. The leaves can be quite sharp, and there's the choke in the middle – a bit like William Blake, 'O Rose thou are sick,' you know ... there's something of the night about the artichoke."
On the other hand, if sales of artichokes are to increase, then perhaps their health benefits should be more widely advertised. Artichokes have a high level of antioxidants and they increase bile production in the liver, which helps with blood fat metabolism. They also contain cynarin, which lowers cholesterol levels. At 60 calories apiece, they're also not bad for losing weight – since they take so long to eat, it prevents you bolting down your food. In the opinion of the late Jane Grigson, artichokes are the ultimate slow food – "the vegetable expression of civilised living, of the long view, of increasing delight by anticipation and crescendo ... it has no place in the troll's world of instant gratification".
HOW TO COOK AND EAT AN ARTICHOKE
Snap off the stalk, don't cut it off, says Simon Hopkinson. "That takes out the tough fibres going into the heart of the vegetable. Then let it simmer in a large pot of salted water – don't boil it furiously – for 40 minutes ... 45 if it's a big one."
Hereford Road's Tom Pemberton adds lemon juice to the water, also "a splash of white wine vinegar – some veg to give the court bouillon some flavour – a bit of rosemary, some thyme and white wine and olive oil. The oil gives them a nice sheen. And you have to balance a weight on top of them to keep them submerged, because they'll naturally float." To tell whether it's cooked, Pemberton suggests putting a skewer into the heart, or counting three leaves down: if that leaf comes away easily when pulled, it's done.
"When it's cooked lift it and drain it upside down so all the water drains out," instructs Hopkinson. "Leave that for five or six minutes, it's best to eat it warm, rather than piping hot. Every leaf on an artichoke is attached to the heart – you pull all those off and eat the little knobbly sweet bits at the bottom of each leaf, dip them in a mustardy, emulsified vinaigrette (one which sticks to what you're dipping into it) – or melted butter or a hollandaise, although that can be quite rich." Pemberton suggests dipping leaves into a poached egg.
"Then you get to this terrible thing called the choke," says Hopkinson. "It has to be removed, which is very easy. With a thumb you can just push it off the heart, which is the last thing you're going to eat." The heart, with its unique, irresistible flavour and texture, is the delicious reward for all your hard work.
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