By Audrey Stallsmith
"Yet had he come," thought Dantes, "he would have found the treasure; and Borgia, he who compared Italy to an artichoke, which he could devour leaf by leaf, knew too well the value of time to waste it. . ."
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
When traveling through Italy Goethe wrote, in a shocked tone, that "the peasants eat thistles." And that, granted, is what the "high-class" artichoke is. A tasty and often expensive thistle, but a thistle nevertheless.
In fact, cynara skolymos derives from the Latin canina ("dog") and the Greek skolymos ("thistle"). As if to drive home the point, "artichoke"--descended from the Arabic al-khurshuf--also means "thistle." On the other hand, the Ligurian term, cocali, translates to "pine cone"--probably in reference to the vegetable's tight-fitting "scales."
Pliny also was not impressed by the artichoke, writing that "we turn into a corrupt feast the earth’s monstrosities, those which even the animals instinctively avoid.” I would call cynara a very handsome plant rather than a monstrosity, however.
Although I've only eaten an artichoke once or twice, I've tried the wild form--cardoon or cynara cardunculus--as an ormanmental in my garden more often. Since it is large, I always put it at the back of the border. Which, unfortunately, generally dooms it to being eaten by slugs. But those of you with dryer conditions might have better luck!
The artichoke is actually the unopened bud of cynara skolymos which, when allowed to bloom, can produce a violet-hued flower up to seven inches across. The partially edible "scales" which we call "leaves" or "petals" are actually bracts. The size of the bloom and the shape of its calyx make the artichoke's kinship to the sunflower family pretty obvious. (The Jerusalem artichoke is actually a sunflower but--as it's grown for its tuber--a completely different vegetable than the true artichoke.)
Catherine de Medici is credited with bringing the vegetable from her native Italy to France. She actually ate it herself too, which was considered pretty risque for females at the time, as the artichoke was thought to be an aphrodisiac. Because it will coagulate milk, it has also been used as an alternative to rennet in the manufacture of cheese.
The plant's long association with Italy got it into trouble in the U.S., where in 1935 its production was monopolized by a gangster named Ciro Terranova. New York city mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia actually banned the "connected" artichoke from his town for a short period of time during that year.
The vegetable, which stimulates the appetite, also affects the taste buds, making anything eaten afterwards seem sweeter. Its compound, cynarin, increases production of bile, improving the function of the liver and gall bladder. Artichokes are also high in antioxidants and help lower cholesterol.
They can be expensive and somewhat of a pain to eat, however, as only a small percentage of each "leaf" and the heart is edible. So the tough and thorny parts of the vegetable must be discarded. It is also difficult to get any harvest from the plant in colder parts of the country. Which is probably why most U. S. artichokes grow in California!
But, hey, who doesn't like a challenge? And, like people, the vegetables with the most prickly interiors often have the sweetest hearts!
Image of cynara scolymus is from Flore Medicale, Vol. I by Pierre J. F. Turpin.