jerusalem artichokes

I disagree with the adage that everyone has a novel in them. I certainly don’t, and given how glacially slowly I write even a blog post, I’m not sure it’d be wise of me to embark on a non-fiction title either. But if I were to write a book, it’d be something about the history of fruit and vegetables; a real page-turner with epic themes: exploration, exploitation, empires, race, class and politics – plus recipes! A nice illustration of this is the story of the Jerusalem artichoke, that knobbly but tasty tuber with a reputation for provoking lively flatulence.

jerusalem artichokes

The Jerusalem artichoke, in fact, comes not from Jerusalem at all but from North America. The celebrated French explorer Samuel de Champlain (he later founded Quebec) brought them back from Cape Cod in 1605. It’s not even closely related to the globe artichoke either; it’s just that the flavour is on a similar tip. The “Jerusalem” part is thought to be a corruption of girasole, Italian for sunflower, which is in the same genus. The word itself refers to the way the flower turns to follow the sun through the course of the day. After a decent UK summer, the Jerusalem artichoke will produce tiny sunflower-like blooms in the autumn, although they are quite hard to see because the plants usually reach around three metres tall.

The origin of the French name, topinambour, is odder still. In 1613 six indigenous Brazilians from a tribe named the Tupinambá were exhibited at the French court. “Les Topinamboux” were such a hit with a curious, gawping public that canny vegetable vendors were able to cash in on the event by giving a very similar name to these equally novel tubers.

jerusalem artichokes

The plant is not hard to grow at all. In fact, getting rid of it tends to be more problematic. They are not particularly fussy about soil type or pH, although I have found them to end up less knobbly in a lighter soil. Individual tubers are planted 45cm apart and 15cm deep in late February or during March. This year, some of the land was still occupied by winter spinach but, after removing a few plants, I went ahead and planted in the gaps  – by the time the artichoke shoots appear, the spinach will be starting to go to seed.

jerusalem artichokes

Artichoke plants need little in the way of TLC apart from watering when the weather is especially dry, and staking in very exposed locations. The enthusiastic thicket of stems makes a good annual screen or windbreak. They should be cut down once they turn brown in late autumn and the tubers can be dug up as and when needed. They will overwinter in the soil but tend to get more slug-eaten as time goes on. I store them in boxes of compost in a cool shed and save the smoothest, largest ones for replanting the following year. Try to dig them all up, otherwise you’ll get so-called “volunteers” thrusting their way destructively though whatever crop you plant there next.

jerusalem artichokes

In the kitchen they are basically used like potatoes, except that they can be eaten raw too if shaved very thinly into salads. The windy side effects are, fortunately, mollified somewhat after a few frosts. In their favour, they are low in calories and good for promoting beneficial gut flora. The most readily available variety is Fuseau, which is beige-skinned and elongated rather like a sweet potato, but I prefer the round pink-skinned Gerard, which is the one in the photos here, because it’s prettier and easier to peel.

Try Jamie’s awesome Sautéed Jerusalem artichokes with garlic & bay leaves for a gorgeous alternative to roast spuds!

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Pete Wrapson

About the author

I have looked after Jamie’s garden in Essex for the last six years, growing organic fruit and vegetables for both the Oliver family and Fifteen Restaurant. Although I was press-ganged into service in my parents’ vegetable garden at a tender age I only returned to the soil in 2000, having moved to a house with an overgrown veg patch. Then came two allotments and, fortunately, a burgeoning interest in cooking, given the sudden mountains of produce. At this point, I was still working as an editor, which seems odd now, since I try to spend every daylight hour outdoors. Feeling increasingly guilty about constantly staring out of the office window thinking about plants, I quit in 2004 in order to make the hobby the day job. A traineeship at Cambridge University Botanic Garden was followed by a stint in the organic kitchen garden at Audley End House before I was lucky enough to land the post at Jamie’s. It’s hard to think of a nicer job, really: I work in a beautiful place for a boss who is very much into his garden, have a lot of freedom to experiment and from time to time get to see Jamie and the Food Team at work, which in turns inspires my own cooking. I blog about the garden as often as I can and also write the gardening pages for Jamie Magazine, which are perfect complements to pulling up weeds and digging holes.

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