The humble artichoke is one of Italy’s most treasured foods, as revered by her cooks as the likes of grappa, asiago cheese, flour and even hallowed San Marzano tomatoes. More impressive still, unlike many of Italy’s most famous foods, this lowly thistle appears to know no enemies, with devotees spread across the country – from top to toe.
Italy’s love affair with this sturdy, bulbous weed goes a long way back. The cultivated globe artichoke we know and love today is in fact a pedigree version of the cardoon, a wild thistle native to North Africa – although you’ll often hear Sicilians claiming it as their own.
On discovery of the cardoon, the ancient Romans began cultivating the weed in Naples, and by the mid-fifteenth century artichokes were being transported as far north as Florence. Not long afterwards, the artichoke began to achieve near cult status. “In Italy today you can find artichokes of different kinds, the prickly variety, open and closed, or the smooth variety, round, broad, open, and closed,” observed doctor and naturalist Andrea Mattioli in 1557. “The craze for them has grown so much that they have become familiar to all, and they enjoy an excellent reputation among the great,” added botanist Constanzo Felici.
The artichoke is still enjoyed in almost exactly the same way it was 600 years ago. While young and fleshy, its soft, edible buds are lovingly pickled or deep-fried to create a dish known as carciofini alla giudia. As the artichoke ages and toughens, its hardy petals (or bracts, as they’re known) are delicately eaten one by one, after being dipped in melted butter or a vinaigrette. This particular method of eating an artichoke has even given rise to the phrase “la politica del carciofo,” referring to the shrewd political method of picking-off opponents one at a time.
Of course, these aren’t the only ways artichokes are enjoyed in Italy. In Umbria, the very tender young thistles are eaten raw in salads; in Milan in a rich risotto of mint, Parmesan and lemon zest. In Rome, the thin-crust pizza quattro stagioni is adorned with artichoke hearts preserved in olive oil, and spaghetti is served Jewish-style with salt cod, offal and fried baby artichokes. In the Veneto region, meanwhile, diners dive in head first, eating their artichokes whole, after steaming them with juicy meatballs.
So just what is it about this disobliging weed that has made it so popular in Italy? A long-standing theory espoused by food historians is that the artichoke represents all that Italian chefs hold dear, namely: resilience, quality and health. Being related to the thistle, artichokes are hardy, common and easy to harvest, and with their sharp aggressive spines count few predators beyond a hungry cook and a sharp knife. As for health, they’re full of fibre, iron, calcium and so-called phytonutrients, which are believed to act as a mild diuretic. It is for this reason the artichoke has long been used in traditional medicine as a remedy for water retention, liver ailments and to aid digestion.
Finally, like all the greatest Italian delicacies, the artichoke is an ingredient best enjoyed fresh, in-season and with as little preparation as possible – thus cementing that all- important mantra in Italian cooking that quality always trumps cost.