In spring in Italy we are in full artichoke season and many parts of the country are getting ready for a special ‘sagre’ tasting events, as in the Ladispoli Festival of Artichokes Romaneschi which is now celebrating its 66th anniversary.
Just in Ladispoli, each year more than 400,000 people participate in the event that is twinned both with the ‘Artichoke Festival’ in Castroville (in the Monterey Valley in California) and with the ‘Fiesta de la Alcachofa‘ at Benicarlò, near Valencia in Spain. And perhaps you might like to know that Marilyn Monroe was crowned “Queen of the Artichoke” (Artichoke Queen) in the first edition of the festival in California in 1949, when she was still called Norma Jean. Great advertising in hindsight and, at the time, a wonderful view to match the special tastes.
For the agricultural enthusiast, the artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a typical Mediterranean plant of the Asteraceae family, cultivated primarily for food and secondarily for medicine. Its flowers are ready by late winter until late spring and this is the period of the events and festivals that attract farmers, nutritionists, chefs, gluttons, gourmands, and enthusiasts.
In fact artichokes are grown mainly in Italy, Egypt, Argentina and Spain and in the area of Monterey in California. For some years Peru has become a significant producer as a result of an asparagus epidemic . It is in these places that farmers have initiated festivals promoting and educating the use of the artichoke with entertainment.
Artichoke is of Middle Eastern origin and was already known at the time of the Egyptians and was widespread in the Mediterranean area for herbal purposes and food. Its arrival in Italy is due to the Etruscans, and I have witnessed the depictions of artichoke leaves in some tombs in the necropolis of Tarquinia. From the Naturalis Historia of Pliny and the “De re coquinaria” of Apicius we know that the Romans appreciated boiling artichokes in water or wine.
The plant called Cynara was already known both by the Greeks (Kaktos) and Romans (carduus), but surely it was a wild variant. Legend has it that the name comes from the greek name of a girl seduced by Zeus and turned into an artichoke which since has always had aphrodisiac attributes.
Around one thousand Arabs have discovered artichokes Sicily, and they developed a new variety and took it to Spain. The modern name comes precisely from the Arabic ‘karshuf’ or ‘kharshaf’ from which alcachofa in Spanish, artichoke in English and carciofo in Italian. The history of this variety is found in the text of Le Roy Ladurie, ‘Les Paysans de Languedoc’.
In 1466 Filippo Strozzi brought the artichoke from Naples to Florence and Catherine de Medici introduced it to France (the queen found artichoke hearts delicious) when she married Henry II of France.
From France to Holland and from Holland to England where we find it in the garden of Henry VIII in 1530 (remember that the artichoke was considered an aphrodisiac and a luxury item). French and Spanish took the lead then in the United States, in Louisiana and California where it is still widely grown. Indeed, in California the thistles have become a real scourge, typical example of an alien invasive species.
Artichoke Festival and Festivals
In Italy there are many festivals each of which focuses on local varieties such as ‘Roman Artichoke’ in Ladispoli, Sezze, Velletri, the ‘violet’ artichokes in Piombino, the ‘Prickly Artichoke of Sardinia‘ in Uri and Masainas, the round artichoke in Paestum, the ‘artichoke’ in Pertosa and the ‘Sicilian artichoke’ in both Ramacca and Niscemi.
The most important event is perhaps that of the Artichoke Festival in Ladispoli for the Romanesco, a variety recognized and protected. It has also become a national fair, with the participation of exhibitors from all over Italy, and twinned with Spain and California, and with a variety of tastings by different culinary schools. The event has grown so large that it runs for a period of two weeks in which restaurants will compete with menu items featuring artichokes, from appetizer to dessert.
The twin Castroville Artichoke Festival in Monterey, however, is a very ‘American’ festival where the city calls itself ‘The world center of the artichoke’. The artichoke industry was started by Italian-Swiss in the county of Monterey in 1920, and this festival was born as an evolution of a previous marching band event. To this day the artichoke festival there is still characterized by the presence of many bands and carnival-type shows. In pure American spirit, they cannot avoid having a contest among the farmers for the best and largest artichokes and artistic competitions for the realisation of works using the artichoke leaves.
In the Spanish twin festival in Benicarlò, however, the ‘Fiesta de la Alcachofa‘lasts a week in which bars and restaurants offer special tasting between games and shows. A Gala Dinner is organized to reward those who have excelled in promoting the artichoke at which the “Alcachofa de oro” (golden artichoke) is awarded.
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Italian Recipes with Artichokes
For its intense aroma and floral features, for its tender and crisp texture and full-bodied taste with a balanced blend of bitter and sweet elements, the artichoke lends itself to many different recipes. A variety was witnessed in 1581 by Montaigne during his Grand Tour where he writes: “all over Italy they will give you raw beans, peas , green almonds, and almost raw artichoke leaves. ”
The true culinary centre for the artichoke is Rome and the artichoke is an integral part of the Roman tradition since the Renaissance, when the best chefs in the world competed for work with the Popes. One of them, Scappi, the chef of Pius IV, became famous for his book ‘Works of art of cooking’ recipes published in 1750. Here you will find over 1000 recipes, his declaration that parmesan is the best cheese on earth, and the first design which documents a modern fork.
Examples of the Roman cuisine are the Artichoke alla Romana (stewed in olive oil, vegetable broth, parsley, garlic and mint), the Artichoke Giudia (whole and fried in olive oil), the fried battered artichokes and raw artichoke salad. Artichokes must have led to the name of the Jewish ghetto of Rome and is also mentioned in many cookbooks and sixteenth century memoires. Cimaroli (or violet) artichokes, the best of the “romanesco” variety, are grown between Ladispoli and Civitavecchia . They are spineless and can be eaten in their entirety.
In the countryside near Rome, between Velletri and Lariano, the ‘Carciofolata matticella‘ is one of the ‘queens’ of outdoor dining. Artichokes stuffed with herbs are laid on a bed of embers and the name derives from the type of wood used to make the coals: the remains of pruning of the grape vines.
The thorny artichokes from Sardinia are enjoyed raw in vinaigrettes (dipping the leaves in extra-virgin olive oil, salt and vinegar or lemon) or in a salad (removing the outer leaves). They are also cooked with typical Sardinian lamb or fish. They are used as a first course with bottarga (mullet or tuna eggs) or as second as ‘octopus and artichokes’ or with the variant ‘octopus, artichokes and potatoes’ (maybe even with an addition of curry).
Artichoke Recipes from around the world
In Spain artichokes are part of the tradition especially in the Valencia area, where they are one of the ingredients of the famous Paella Valenciana. Other popular recipes are omelet with artichokes, a stew of artichokes and potatoes (Alcachofas rellenas) and artichoke and Jamon pie (Alcachofas with Jamón).
In Greece, especially in the islands close to Turkey, a very common dish is ‘aginares a la polita‘ (artichokes in the style of Constantinople) made with artichoke hearts, potatoes, carrots and flavored with onions, lemon and dill.
Across North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, for example, the filling also includes onions, tomatoes, pine nuts, raisins, parsley, myrtle, dill, black pepper and mint that inevitably characterizes all Lebanese cuisine. A Turkish vegetarian varieties only uses onions, carrots, peas and salt.
While the soup of Jerusalem artichokes is made from the root of ‘topinambour’ which is called a ‘Jerusalem artichoke’, and is a simple chicken broth with onions and artichokes enriched with mint.
As for the United States, when you turn to the internet you can find many recipes born of the interaction of different peoples, styles and uses, starting from the traditional artichoke dip for crackers or pita bread. Very common are also varieties made with buttered clams and oysters and flavored with liquor according to the Cajun style variations of Louisiana.
Recently also the vegan cooking enthusiasts have started developing recipes by adding almond milk and spices like turmeric, curry and ginger.
However, the whole world has learned about the artichokes by Pizza Quattro Stagioni and on the web you can find funny stories of tourists who taste artichokes for the first time.
Uses in the company: drinks and cocktails artichoke
In various parts of the world atichokes are used in herbal tea: a sweet version comes from the Da Lat region in Vietnam while from Mexico comes a more bitter version directly using the artichoke flowers in hot water.
Italy is famous in the Cynar, an artichoke-based liqueur (16.5% alcohol) often used in Switzerland as a cocktail by adding orange juice or with the name of ‘Cin Cyn ‘(one of the versions of the famous Negroni in which you use the Cynar instead of Campari).
Therapeutic and medical uses
The artichoke is used in natural medicine in the treatment of disorders of the gallbladder and liver due to its strong purifying action. The low calorie content and the presence of vitamins B1 and B3 complex makes it mentioned in slimming diets, and the shortage of sugar makes it suitable for diabetics.
Art and the artichoke
And if we can not go to Ladispoli or Castroville or Bentempò, maybe we can feel the emotion of the artichoke by reading the poem by the Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda ‘Oda a la Alcachofa‘ (part of Odas elementales collection). Or maybe we can be amazed by the paintings of “L’ortolana” (the gardener) Vincenzo Campi and “Summer”, and “Vertumnus”by Arcimboldo.
We can also freshen up in the fountains carved in artichoke shape in Naples, Florence and Madrid.