Artichokes are a classy item, seldom found on the high street.
There's a sound explanation for this: you definitely need some culinary cunning to reveal their magic.
Artichokes have been eaten and admired for millennia. They are also striking plants - large and architectural - with serrated silvery leaves and blue / purple flowers. Continental artichokes are in season now; UK crops start around June.
Most are grown in the Mediterranean. (Italy is the largest producer). But they can flourish in Britain, too, and growers such as HolmSelect in Cambridgeshire send their niche crop to the market.
There are many types, including the smaller Petit Violet and large Globe. A few are pictured below - read on for the definitive guide.
- Artichokes are from the Asteraceae plant family and related to the thistle. Jerusalem artichokes and Chinese artichokes (a.k.a. Crosnes) are unrelated.
- The edible part of the artichoke is the immature flower head.
- Regional Italian varieties (many PDO or PGI) include Brindisi, Paestum, and Roman. If you're feeling extra keen, there's a Romanesco artichoke festival every April in Ladispoli, near Rome.
- Sardinia, Puglia and Sicily are famous for production of spiny artichokes. This season runs from around October to May.
- The artichoke is rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients such as cynarin and silymarin. It is considered good for the liver - with detoxifying properties.
Growing and harvesting
Artichokes are a niche crop in Britain; most are imported from Italy, Spain and France. However, HolmSelect in Cambridgeshire is a leading UK grower.
They cultivate around 50 acres of the Globe type and are organically certified. "We started off as a trial crop," explains managing director Clive Martin. "People always think its an easy crop to grow but it’s not. If you get sustained dry weather it can collapse in the field. They love water actually so you have to irrigate them quite heavily." Below is a picture of young plants in the field.
Artichokes are harvested by hand - a demanding job.
HolmSelect grows two F1 varieties - Madrigal and Opera, a purple type. ("They are named after music for some reason," Martin says).
He commissions a nursery to grow the seedlings, which are then planted out in the field. The plants are productive for about three years. The UK season runs from around June to September. A mature plant will produce 4-6 heads of saleable size. "When they see our stuff on the market lots of people don't believe it’s UK produced – I can assure them it is," he says.
In the market
Many wholesalers on the market offer artichokes. When in season, try S Thorogood and Sons for Globe artichokes from HolmSelect. Continental specialists such as French Garden and European Salad Company are a good bet for Italian, Spanish and French imports, which are in season right now. Look for artichokes with tight, firm leaves and no discoloration.
Top chef Giorgio Locatelli gave us the low-down on how different types of artichokes are used in the professional kitchen. "Tender baby artichokes are used for salads and eaten raw. They can be peeled, turned and put under oil or sous vide. Spinoso (spiny) is a very good flavoured artichoke and is very good for both - for salads or for cooking."
At his restaurant Locanda Locatelli, artichoke recipes include gnocchi with artichokes and Murazzano cheese, John Dory with crushed potatoes, green olive and artichoke and Seabass with a tomato crust, Vernaccia wine and artichoke puree. (See the recipe here).
Simple salads with rocket, olive oil, lemon juice and Parmesan are made with thin slivers of raw small artichokes, kept prepped in cold water then sliced finely to order. Baby artichokes are also dusted with hard durum wheat flour then deep fried.
Once prepped, all artichokes should be kept in acidulated water. Wear gloves if you are handling a large quantity.
Artichokes are best cooked in stainless steel pans rather than iron, aluminium or other reactive materials. (Credit for pictures below to O_maljaman_O and Lola Zlokapa). Locatelli recommends boiling artichokes in acidulated water with added herbs for extra flavour.
Carciofi all giudia is a classic Roman dish. The artichokes are fried whole in olive oil then allowed to rest. Before serving, you gently squash open the leaves, flick with water and refry. (Credit below to Acarru). Stewed anchovies with garlic, mint and anchovies is another traditional dish in the city.
Another Michelin-starred Italian chef makes Carciofo e rosmarino (artichoke and rosemary). The artichoke is cooked sous vide and then brushed with a resin made from rosemary and the leaves and stems of the artichoke.
Artichokes are also used in drinks such as Cynar, a bitter Italian liqueur flavoured with an array of herbs.