(Cynara scolymus – Family Compositae [Asteraceae])
Globe artichokes are the fruits of thistle-like plants thought to be native to Arabia, the Mediterranean, Iran, and Turkey. As early as 500 BC, this vegetable was known in Egypt and Rome as an expensive specialty; and, in the 18th century France, it constituted a culinary privilege of the aristocracy. Today, it is generally an affordable vegetable most everywhere. Major producers of the globe artichoke are France, Italy, Spain, Egypt, Israel, Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey; while miniature specialties come from California and Provence. The cultivated form is a descendant of the wild cardoon (C. cardunculus) and differs from it mainly in the size of the flower head, which is greatly larger and fleshier than the wild form.
There are two varieties of artichoke. One is a tight-headed globular form seldom seen in North America, and the other is the more familiar conical-shaped. Both forms originated in Italy and grow to heights of almost six feet. The plant, which is closely related to the cotton thistle and found attractive to pollinating insects, has attractive leaves and large thistle-like flowers. The colour of the leaves varies with the season from bright, silvery green in the spring to olive green or bronze in the winter, if they have been exposed to frost. The leaves grow on the thick stems, where the heads also emerge.
Artichokes thrive in moderate climates close to the sea where the soil has a high salt content. Seaweed is said to be the best fertilizer possible for these plants. As might be expected, artichokes are rich in iodine, as well as calcium, iron, protein and vitamins A, B1, and C. They also consist of 85% water. Half its carbohydrate content is the indigestible inulin which turns to fructose in storage. Artichokes owe their delicate, tangy taste to the bitter substance “cynarin”, a substance that has significant regenerating effects, as well as having diuretic properties. Cynarin is also a sweet-tasting, water-soluble chemical found in the saliva so that anything you eat after an artichoke will taste sweet. Artichokes have a long history in the treatment of liver complaints, aiding in detoxification and regeneration and used to treat jaundice and hepatitis. They also reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels, stimulate the gall bladder, and help with the metabolism of fat. Interestingly, modern research is now supporting many of these “folk” remedies. However, a couple of ancient uses defies such scientific research. Artichokes were also used as a contraceptive and aphrodisiac, but its potency and success rates were not recorded.
Artichokes come in different sizes: baby, medium, and jumbo. All three sizes grow on the same plant. The jumbo grows on the centre stalk, the medium grow on the sides, and the babies at the base. They are not merely immature globes. Developing over the course of the summer from leafy rosettes, the globes are a little like pine cones in appearance. Round or cylindrical in shape, they measure about four inches in length and weigh between five ounces and two pounds. The globes are harvested before the blossoms open to ensure the best flavour. The size of a mature artichoke is dependent upon its placement on the plant. Those at the top can be enormous while those at the base, shaded by dense leaves, may grow no larger than a ping-pong ball. As soon as the petals begin to open, they are overripe, no matter the size. Spring and summer artichokes have a slightly different taste than fall and winter varieties.
The artichoke is often described as a cultivated form of the wild cardoon of Greece, the Italian peninsula, and North Africa; but it is unclear if the edible artichoke existed in the ancient world as a mutant form of the cardoon. However it happened, it made its appearance in the area near Naples during the 15th century and, from there, spread to Florence and Venice, where it became a stylish delicacy. Catherine de Medici introduced the artichoke to the French Court in 1633 when she married King Henry IV. By the end of that century, it was widely cultivated in Italy, Spain, and France. It was taken to England during the 17th century, but the English did not take to this new vegetable as readily as other Europeans did. Today, the artichoke is extensively cultivated throughout southern Europe, and is very much a part of the Mediterranean diet. In the US, where it is also popular, it is grown mainly on huge tracts of fog-shrouded land along the coast near Monterey, California, where it was originally introduced by the Spanish during the 1700s.
Artichokes can be stored briefly in plastic bags to preserve their moisture content. The edible part is the fond or heart of the flower bud and the tender fleshy portions of the leaf sections, but the stem can also be edible and tasty. To clean and prepare a globe artichoke, cut off the stem and trim the outer leaves. Plunge into some cold water to rinse away any sand or dirt. To core, turn upside down and remove, then scrub the root with a vegetable brush, peel and slice. When you slice into the base of a globe artichoke or slice a Jerusalem variety, the cell walls are torn. This releases polyphenoloxidase, an enzyme that converts phenols in the vegetable to brown compounds that will darken it, much like what happens to a potato or apple. This can be slowed (but not stopped) by painting the surface with lemon juice. Cook them in a non-metallic pan in water with salt and lemon juice for about thirty to forty-five minutes until soft. When the vegetable is cooked, the chlorophyll in the leaves reacts with the acids in the artichoke or the water to form pheophytin, which is brown. Since artichokes contain yellow carotenes, they, along with the pheophytin, turn the vegetable a bronze colour. This can be prevented by cooking the artichoke quickly, or in lots of water to dilute the acids, or by cooking with the lid off so that the volatile acids will be evaporate “into thin air”. Globe artichokes should always be cooked as they contain a natural chemical that inhibits the body from digesting protein, but becomes inactivated during cooking.
Artichokes are eaten by hand, with the leaves being pulled off one by one and dipped in a variety of sauces before scraping off the fleshy leaf base between your teeth. Pull off the central hairy choke or remove it with a spoon and then eat the fleshy heart. Bottoms can be used in a variety of dishes, including salads, after they are cooked and cooled.
Warning: Globe artichokes contain essential oils that may cause contact dermatitis in sensitive people. Those on such restricted diets as potassium, sodium, or sugar should avoid this vegetable. Artichokes contain an organic acid called cynarin, which stimulates sweetness receptors in some people. They can cause a false-positive for occult blood in stool samples. The guiac slide test for hidden blood in feces relies on alphaguaiaconic acid, a chemical that turns blue in the presence of blood. Artichokes contain peroxidase, a natural chemical that also turns alphaguaiaconic acid blue, thereby producing a positive result when there is actually no blood in the stool. It is therefore advised that, if any such testing is ordered, artichokes not be on the menu for several days prior.
There are countless local varieties of the globe artichoke which are seldom exported. In Spain, cultivation for export is limited mainly to the province of Valencia, where the primary variety is the small, green Tudela. In California, the Green Globe variety comprises nearly 90% of those grown; but other varieties include Magnifico, Imperial Star, and Emerald.
French artichoke varieties are categorized into three groups as follows:
Brittany artichokes with large green heads (Camus de Bretagne, Camerys, Caribou). There is also a relatively new purple variety that comes from Brittany. They are so named because of its truncated, spherical shape.
Midi artichokes with violet leaves that come from the South of France (Violet de Provence, Violet de Hyères, Violet du Gapeau)
Secondary varieties classified between Camus and the purple varieties (Blanc Hyerois).
Italian artichokes come mainly from the provinces of Puglia, Sicily, Sardinia, and Tuscany. The four main varieties are as follows:
Catanese, which are medium large, cylindrical, with closed heads and green outer leaves shading into violet.
Romanesco are large, spherical, and closed-headed, with a characteristic opening at the top, and green leaves under an opaque reddish violet colour.
Spinoso Sardo is a medium large conical shape, with a closed head and violet-green leaves that taper to a point, and with a large thorn.
Violetto di Toscana is a medium-large elliptical closed head, with violet leaves and dark green shading on the inside.
Globe artichokes are a popular dual-purpose plant. They are grown not only for food but often as borders in ornamental gardens. Some varieties include the following:
Green Globe, which has large green heads with thick fleshy scales;
Gros Camus de Bretagne, which is only suitable for warmer climates, but having large good tasting heads;
Purple Globe, which is hardier than the green ones, but not as tasty;
Purple Sicilian, which is a deep purple and excellent eaten raw when they are very young;
Vert de Laon, and Violetta di Chioggia, purple varieties that make excellent border plants.