For me, artichokes are the quintessential taste of summer. My father grew them in his kitchen garden when I was growing up in the 1960s, and they were a great treat, something not many other people seemed to eat, something exotic and redolent of "abroad". The whole business of heating up the butter, or making the vinaigrette, of making sure there was a huge bowl for the discarded leaves, of cutting out every last fibre of the choke before eating the heart - all of it excitingly unlike any other food. Later, we introduced our children to them every summer on holiday in Brittany; and, finally, huge globes pitched up in Waitrose, at vast prices, only to be eaten once a year because of the expense. Easy to cook - just put them into the largest saucepan in the house, and boil until soft (about 40 minutes).
And yet, all the while, I puzzled over artichoke recipes I occasionally stumbled on, which talked about quartering them and braising them and eating them whole - what, choke and all??? I have never, ever, seen in a shop or market an artichoke small enough to eat whole. So the obvious answer was to grow them myself. And I do.
As you can see, they are beautiful. Thistles, actually - and therefore spectacularly easy to grow, because they're close to being weeds. They take up a lot of room, but they'd look wonderful in a small space, because of their beautiful silvery leaves, cut into dramatic shapes, and their emerging thistles, which really do flower purple if you leave them long enough. I am lucky enough to have lots of space for them, but I think I'd grow them even if all I had was a square foot.
I grow the French variety Gros de Laon, which will turn into huge big-hearted globes in moments if you're not watchful, and - much prettier - the Italian purple-budded variety Violetta. They both make good eating.
This is what you do:
Cut (or buy if you can find them) small artichoke buds. Strip off some of the tougher outer leaves. Ignore any recipe that tells you to cut the top third off the outer leaves, because it's impossible, and rather suggests that the author is copying someone else's recipe without actually bothering to cook it first. Cut the artichoke into quarters, and poach in equal quantities of wine vinegar and olive oil - you need quite a lot, but it doesn't need to cover them. Just keep turning the quarters until they're tender - probably not longer than 10 minutes. Spoon the juices over them, and eat hot, cold, or tepid, with herbs chopped into them. You could flavour the cooking liquid with some whole peppercorns, or some strongly-scented herb such as thyme or oregano.
There are a couple of things you should know about artichokes: when you cut them, they discolour almost immediately, so you should be ready to cook them immediately, or else sprinkle them with lemon juice. Also, if you're cooking the older, bigger ones, do not, under any circumstances, eat the choke. It is well named. Even the smallest fibre will catch in your craw, so it's worth taking trouble. If they're well cooked, you can generally ease it off in one or two pieces by pulling gently.
Gordon Ramsay cooked artichokes this week on the F Word. It looked like a good method, although fiddlier than mine. He trimmed down baby artichokes - I thought unnecessarily hard, there were virtually no leaves left. Then he quartered and boiled them (he didn't say for how long, just that irritating thing he does: "Trim. Boil. Grill." with stirring music playing in the background). He drained them, and then grilled them on a griddle pan, which made them look lovely.
I hope that I've inspired you to grow them. In which case, now is a good moment to sow seeds in individual pots. You can plant them out in late August or early September (anyway, before the soil starts to cool down), and they should be producing buds this time next year. Not all of the plants will come true and be good producers, but you'll easily be able to tell, so just pull them up. That's why gardening books always tell you to take slips from existing plants in March (sliver bits of root and stem off with a very sharp knife), so that you know exactly what you're getting. I'm not very good at that counsel of perfection stuff - I forgot to take slips this spring until it was too late, so I'm about to sow seed, which I did last year, too, for exactly the same reason.
All this gardening advice is aimed at British gardeners, so, because this is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this weekend by Rinku at Cooking in Westchester, I'm adding a little more detail, which I have gleaned from a marvellous book called Vegetables by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix.
Artichokes (cynara cardunculus L compositae) are easily grown in warm, light soils in northern Europe, but often die in winter in heavy soils and cold localities. In hot areas they will tolerate heavier soils and some midday shade. The great artichoke-growing areas of France (in Brittany, near Treguier, where it has been grown since 1508) and Italy (on the coastal plain near Brindisi) have light soils and a very mild winter climate. The plants grow best in a warm, sheltered bed, in rich well-drained soil. Young plants or cuttings made of side shoots are planted in spring, around 1m apart and in a double row. They grow quickly, and should be given a dose of nitrogen-rich fertiliser when they are growing well. Some will have small flowers in their first autumn, but these should be picked young to encourage the plants to form side shoots. Established plants should be protected from hard frost by putting a good layer of dry straw round them and their root area. They should then be mulched with good soil and fertiliser in early spring. The old plants may need replacing after about three years, with young, more vigorous ones.
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