Tom Doorley: Impertinent food
When we lived in one of Dublin’s leafier suburbs we had globe artichokes growing just inside our cast-iron Victorian railings. The plants were remarkably prolific and produced dozens of big, flesh flower-heads which we picked before they opened. Steamed, or boiled, we fell upon them gladly armed with ramekins of melted butter.
Our first crop was reduced somewhat by having four of the heads nicked by some nocturnal pedestrian with gastronomic tendencies. And when we told a friend about this we were told “oh, that’s the sign of a very good residential area…”
Well, oddly enough, and despite the fact that growing artichokes is one of the easiest things anyone can do (essentially: plant, wait, eat), they do have rather a posh reputation. According to one early nineteenth century book, the Scottish upper classes thought it impertinent if the lower orders cultivated the artichoke. And, of course, it has always been part of what you might loosely call 'country house cuisine' (and we’re not talking a Murnane & O’Shea bungalow here, but more of a Georgian with wings).
Perhaps this is because the eating of globe artichokes involves a certain knack of the kind that is handed down in families like silver and Roman noses. Essentially, you pull of the scales and eat the fleshy morsel at the base of each. When all these are gone, you scoop out the choke, or bristly bit, to reveal the heart or, as the French say, fond. This is the best bit. Melted butter or a vinaigrette is used for dipping.
I once overheard a woman in a rather smart restaurant complaining that her artichoke (par-boiled, I think, then split and finished on the char-grill), was “tough.” The waiter’s response was diplomatic beyond the call of duty. My own view is that you shouldn’t complain about stuff which you have not eaten before; how do you it’s not meant to be like that?
Globe artichokes (Cynara scolymus, to be precise) are very easily grown if you can persuade someone to let you have a side shoot with a bit of root. You just plant it, ideally in fairly fertile soil, and it looks after itself. It’s occasionally seen in garden centres (more, I think, as a stylish and striking plant rather than a vegetable) but growing from seed offers the most fun if you have the room to run a trial.
This is because a packet of globe artichoke seed will produce several dozen plants, each unique. You can grow a selection and then choose the ones you most like; in most cases, these will be the ones that produce the fleshiest heads.
Some strains of artichoke produce flowers heads which, when very young and immature, can be sliced and eaten raw with a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. In the past, this way with artichokes was thought to have aphrodisiac qualities. One Dutch herbal claimed that raw artichokes “engender noughtie humours”, which must have caused considerable interest. These heads can also be steamed and eaten whole, which is one of an artichoke lover’s concept of nirvana. But generally speaking, artichokes are stringy, fibrous and bristly things only a few parts of which are edible.
Now, it should be clear that we are not talking about the wholly unrelated Jerusalem artichoke, that knobbly tuber which is used to make Palestine soup and which is known, not without good reason, as the 'fartichoke'. The two vegetables share a similar taste and a tendency to cause wind, but the globe artichoke has always been held to be good for the liver. Its close relative, the Milk Thistle, is used to this day by people who have hepatic problems.
It’s this reputed virtue that explains the globe artichoke being included in so many 'bitters', those distinctive forms of alcohol which are big on the Continent and which are, to be honest, something of an acquired taste. Cynara, from Italy, is a wonderful retro-style label featuring artichokes.
I wouldn’t thank you for a glass of it, though. I’ll stick with the whole thing.
Website of the week:
All you ever wanted to know about artichokes but, possibly, were afraid to ask.