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Albenga purple, Brindisi, Paestum, and Roman: four varieties of PGI artichokes grown in various regions result in half of the world production of this vegetable coming from Italy.
Artichokes are classified in two main categories: purple and thorny. The Liguria artichoke has the mildest flavour and Roman globe artichokes have no thorns, but the only authentic PDO product is the thorny Sardinian artichoke, the quintessential variety.
What is an artichoke?
In actual fact, the edible part is the flower of the artichoke plant, or rather the flower head. The plant grows over one metre in height terminating with a sort of large flower head consisting of numerous closed leaves called bracts, of a purplish green colour. The plant stem is tender but, once harvested, it starts to harden, gradually becoming woody: this can help us evaluate the freshness of this vegetable. A good artichoke must never look withered or show brown spots, its leaves must be tightly attached to the head and its thorns intact. According to the variety, the artichoke season runs from January to June. This is a very ancient vegetable that was even grown by the Egyptians in the Mediterranean coastal area. Its Latin name is Cynara Scolinmus: cinus derives from the fact that it used to be fertilised with ashes, while Scolymus is a Greek word meaning pointed. Greek mythology, however, is more romantic, and legend would have it that the name derives from Cynara, a young woman with a beautiful ash coloured mane of hair, later to be transformed by her former lover Zeus into an artichoke plant.
How to clean artichokes
There is quite a bit of work involved in cleaning artichokes but it is well worth it: you just have to remove the thorns and the tough, bitter outer leaves, to discover a sweet and tender heart. Remember to remove the “choke” or beard which develops when the artichoke is more mature. Many already know that artichokes have to be immersed in water and lemon juice while you are cleaning them but the real secret for preventing them from turning brown is to use sparkling mineral water, since carbon dioxide slows down the oxidation process.
How artichokes are grown
The perfect land for growing artichokes is hilly or flat, well drained and fertilised, with a mild micro climate in the range of 12 to 22 degrees and a high level of humidity: in fact, artichokes do not take well to frost. When the first flower head develops, the stem will branch out to produce from five to seven heads when it will be harvested for sale on the market. At this point, the producer selects and picks the artichokes, subdividing them into categories. Shoots form at the base of the stem and, apart from being nice to eat, they can be transplanted to grow new artichoke plants. When the shoots are left lying in the field, they serve as organic material for the plants themselves.
Pairings and useful tips
The fragrance of cardoon and spring flowers is intense, and reveals a perfect blend of bitterness on the palate thanks to the presences of tannins and sweetness. The texture is complex: the lower part of the bracts is fleshy yet tender and crisp at the same time. It is highly versatile in cooking, since it may be eaten raw, fried, filled with various ingredients, combined with pasta and risotto, preserved or even served as dessert. It has a particular penchant for garlic, onion, mint and parsley.
One of the signature dishes in which it reigns supreme is Carciofo e rosmarino (artichoke and rosemary) by three Michelin-starred Italian chef Niko Romito. “The notes of anchovy and liquorice typical of the artichoke return to the palate,” says the Abruzzo-born chef. It's nothing but artichoke cooked sous vide for one hour at 90 degrees before being brushed with resin extracted from the herb-aromatised stem.
Another dish that brings out the Sardinian spirit of the artichoke is fregola, a typical durum wheat semolina pasta, thorny Sardinian artichoke and calamari. Our recommendation for a gourmet pairing is to marry sliced artichoke dressed in oil and lemon with mullet roe bottarga.