Story by Peter Wrapson
Go to a vegetable market in the Mediterranean and the chances are that you will see boxes and boxes of globe artichokes: some tiny, some huge, some spiky, some not, some purple, some green. It seems that all the shoppers know what to do with them too, seeing the confidence with which they select one sort over another. The same culture doesn’t exist in Britain, which is a pity because they have a subtle but delicious flavour and are not too hard to grow.
Our unfamiliarity may stem from the plant’s history here. Whilst the Italians have been eating them and their relative the cardoon since Roman times, they are not native to Britain, only arriving at the start of the 16th Century. They were planted in the gardens of monasteries and royal palaces first of all. Henry VIII was apparently a fan, possibly because of their reputation as an aphrodisiac. Although they have been grown in the kitchen gardens of country houses ever since they never entered the cuisine of the country at large and so have always had a certain aristocratic connotation, at least until recently. Nowadays we are better travelled and more interested in other food cultures and artichokes, though still far from a staple vegetable, are an increasingly common sight on allotments and markets.
The appearance of the plant may not have helped either – unlike a tomato plant it’s not immediately obvious which bits to eat. The artichoke is basically a giant perennial thistle. It grows up to two metres tall and sports beautiful purple flowers which are very attractive to bees. The large silvery-green leaves are leathery, sometimes spiny and have an extremely bitter taste. It’s the unopened flower heads that are eaten. The ‘flower’ itself is actually made up of many tiny flowers called florets (like those in the centre of a sunflower) When immature, they are hairy in appearance and hidden by layers of fleshy scales. This ‘choke’ is not eaten but the base on which it sits – the ‘heart’ – is, along with the first few centimetres of stalk. Very small artichokes can be eaten whole but larger ones have to have the choke removed. In the biggest ones, edible flesh can be found at the bottom of the scales too. When picking or buying, choose heads that still have tightly closed scales.
If you want to grow your own artichokes, the first thing you need is space. They are too big for a small vegetable plot but they do work well towards the back of a border, where they look pleasingly Mediterranean. Any dried unpicked flower-heads provide interest into the winter. They like light but fertile soils, plenty of sun and benefit from a good dollop of manure or compost each year. They perform badly on heavy clay and in areas with hard winters. Even in milder areas it’s wise to cover the crowns with straw or horticultural fleece when the frosts start.
Plants can be raised easily and cheaply from seed in spring – I start mine out in pots then transplant later – but the quality of the heads can be variable. Plants from garden centres should be of good quality but the surest option is to cadge an ‘off-set’ – a baby plant – from someone who already has some good plants. Artichokes naturally form clumps over time. Simply sever one of the new plants with a spade, leaving some roots attached, and replant. I have since replaced all my weak and spiny plants using off-sets from the good ones. This should be done about every four years anyway, as plants eventually become less productive. There are many varieties to choose from. I can recommend ‘Imperial Star’, a large ‘Green Globe’ type and ‘Violetta di Chioggia’, which has beautiful pointed purple heads suitable for eating small. Do not allow the plant to flower in its first year, however, as this will weaken it. In subsequent years cut the central head first, which will stimulate the production of more secondary heads and pick regularly through the summer.
The cardoon, on the other hand, is even less well-known here than the artichoke and is viewed more as an ornamental than a food-crop. Thought to be the artichoke’s wild ancestor, it is a magnificent architectural thistle that can reach three metres in height and spread with leaves a metre long. It too produces flower heads, but they are smaller and less edible. Instead, it is cultivated for its stems, which are fleshier than those of the artichoke. These must be blanched for several weeks before picking. The stems are bunched together and tied round with string and paper, which excludes the light and has the effect, as with celery, of making the stalks less stringy. The taste is said to be somewhere between artichoke and asparagus. Although I have one in my own garden I must confess that I have never got round to trying it. If anyone has any good recipes, please let me know.
About the author: Peter Wrapson is Jamie’s gardener
Watch Jamie’s video as he chats about the cardoon in his garden