My friend was huddle over a heap of spiced salami hauled back from our holiday in New York. It was supposed to be a present for somebody else but there was no food in the fridge, so, no present. I was waxing lyrical about artichokes.
"It says here, " I read aloud from a report published by doctors at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, USA, "that there is new research being done into the phytochemical content of artichokes that show that the cynarin and silymarin content - both powerful antioxidants - may help liver tissue re-growth."
"Is that so?" commented my buddy. We thought guiltily of the innumerable cocktails that had been downed during our time in the Big Apple. I rummaged through the store cupboard. There, tucked away at the back was a long forgotten can of artichoke hearts. Medium sized. Fat little fruits, 8-10 to the can. Could they hold the secret to the baffling Mediterranean diet that counts copious amounts of wine amongst its pleasures?
My friend asked, "Does it count if they are canned?"
I looked into it. According to the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago: Yes. Cooked, canned, fresh and frozen vegetables are all about equally nutritious by the time they get to the table. The difference is really in taste and texture. It seems the biggest turn-off about this health-giving thistle is its off-putting leafy armour (bracts) and an inherent fear of preparing it from fresh. Spain may be the second largest grower of artichokes after Italy, but most of these are conveniently canned.
Upon further investigation I discovered reams of websites extolling the health-giving benefits of the humble artichoke. A website dedicated to such things, theepicureantable.com, goes so far as to advocate an 'Artichoke Cure' diet, in which the dieter eats them for several days, or for as long as they are in season as a means of combating overindulgence. You can, the author states, even make a tea from the leaves, which contain the highest concentration of antioxidants, by steeping them in hot water for several minutes.
As one of the world's oldest known foods, the artichoke, or more accurately, its cousin the cardoon, has been considered an excellent means of cleansing the liver and gallbladder, as well as the blood and the bladder, since ancient times. The Roman scholar Pliny called it one of the "earth's monstrosities", while recommending it as a "food for the rich" who routinely gorged themselves on fine wine and rich food.
High in fibre, potassium, calcium, iron and phosphorus, it helps in treating arteriosclerosis and gout. It also improves digestion, is a diuretic and some researchers suggest it may even help to alleviate migraine conditions caused by toxins in the blood, while improving skin luminosity.
The modern-day artichoke (Cynara scolymus), from the Arabic al-kharshuf, corrupted via the Italian carciofa to the Spanish alcachofa and Catalan carxofa, like the cardoon, is a member of the thistle group of the sunflower family. The part we eat is the bud of the flower. The cardoon was first recorded as growing wild by the Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus (371-287 BCE), who wrote of them being eaten in Italy and Sicily, and the plant was later cultivated by the Moors near Granada in 800 CE, gradually spreading across Spain to become the artichoke we recognise today by the 15th century.
They did not reach England until the early 1600s and were about as popular as syphilis, although Henry VII was said to be fond of them for their aphrodisiac qualities. Indeed, at that time, in Britain and France, women were outlawed from eating them, they were considered far too dangerous a drug for the gentle sex.
The Spanish had no such qualms, however, and it was around this time that they introduced them to California. Again, it was a flop crop until they mysteriously flourished in the Twenties when planted in the Salinas Valley of Monterey County, California, becoming the third largest cash crop in the valley and fetching even higher prices than sugar. This led to what became known as the 'Artichoke Wars'. Mobster Ciro 'Whitey' Terranova, otherwise known as the 'Artichoke King', bought crates of Salinas artichokes for only $6, only to turn a 30 to 40 percent profit when he sold them again in New York. Terrorising distributors and growers, he and his henchmen went so far as to destroy his competitors' crops under cover of darkness until eventually the then Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, declared the "sale, display and possession" of artichokes in New York illegal. The ban lasted only a week, when his own love of the vegetable got the better of him.
Back on European soil, the artichoke may have had a less dramatic past, but it has a more loyal following and continues to be a more loyal following and continues to be a much revered delicacy of the southern Mediterranean diet, with Spain's esteemed Blanca de Navarra or Blanca de Tudela variety top of the crop. Typically rounder and softer than other varieties, with less hair around the actual choke, the Denominación de Origen (DO) dictates it must have two leaves still attached to the artichoke when sold. It is also the only DO to achieve 'extra' or 'first' categorisation in the country.
These days, the artichoke enjoys two season: spring and autumn. And while the autumnal crop is smaller and more expensive, it still provides a fleeting reminder of spring as the winter approaches.
BASIC PREPARATION: Select fruits that are dark green with the bracts lying close together. Those that are brown or with the leaves open will taste dry, and the heart will be past its prime. The smaller they are, the more tender they will be, and the heart will have less hairs. To prepare, tap the artichoke upside down to remove any bugs. Rinse and trim away the tough outer leaves and the stalk. Keep the prepared artichokes in a bowl of lemon water until ready to cook as they discolour quickly. The simplest method is to cover the whole thing in water and simmer until tender. Depending on the size of the fruit, this will take between 30 and 40 minutes. The outer leaves should be plucked off one by one, the juicy flesh from the bottom scraped off with the teeth and the rest of the leaf discarded. They are wonderful dipped in mayonnaise infused with lime juice and a pinch of smoked pimentón, the plump, creamy heart an instant reward for the work of getting to it.
RECIPE WATCH: Raw artichoke and Parmesan salad (serves six) Peel away all but the tenderest leaves of 12 baby artichokes (if you can get Blanca de Tudela so much the better) and cut in half. Remove the hairy choke if any. Soak in a bowl of cold water together with 1/3 cup of fresh lemon juice for half an hour. Remove, drain and slice into thin wedges. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with two tablespoons fresh lemon juice. Mix in a good handful of shaved parmesan. Dress with about three tablespoons of fruity olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Let rest for at least 30 minutes before serving to further tenderise the artichokes and allow them to soak up the flavour.