So what does someone like me do while on vacation? Of course, create an A&S experiment. My father lives just north of Santa Barbara in wine country. One of the discoveries made was a large quantity of wild artichoke growing on his property. Artichoke is a food that I have enjoyed my entire life, but it is also found in many cuisines that I have studied within the SCA for my feasts. I have always been fascinated by this alien member of the thistle family and was curious how wild artichoke would differ from the ones found in grocery stores today.
Artichokes are present in art, cookbooks, and heraldry pre 17th century.
Still Life with Artichoke by Osias Beert c. 16th century
Fruit Seller by Vincenzo Campi c 1580
This perennial thistle is eaten both alone and used within dishes combined with other ingredients.
“HERE FOLLOWS the herbs & greens that are needed for the kitchen, that which Cooks must know & understand. Firstly the cabbage flowers…Artichokes….” (Ouverture de Cuisine, 1604)
“[Artichokes] At least for the Italians both were in use and distinguishable. This can be inferred from the culinary recipes for the same, use of them in menus taken from Scappi and descriptions taken from Castelvetro.” (Smithson, 2004)
I have used Artichokes in a feast before, inspired by Giacomo Castelvetro’s (1546-1616) description on how to prepare artichokes and artichoke bottoms. Castelvetro was an Italian refugee, teacher, and writer who traveled through Western Europe in the late 16th century. His description of preparing artichokes included boiling in fresh water, boiling in beef or capon broth and serving on moistened bread with sprinkles of hard cheese and pepper. (Riley, p. 50, 2012)
Having this great opportunity to try something so unique was one I could not pass up. The following is my experiment and the information gathered from harvesting, prepping and cooking wild artichokes,
First, although the harvesting time for wild artichoke is late July early August, you are supposed to pick it before the flower blooms. You see, the most edible portion of the artichoke is actually the “heart”. The leaves and internal “hairs” and “choke” (which are actually the flower itself) are picked away (with some meat of the heart attached that can be eaten) to reveal the heart “meat”.
However, all of the Artichokes were pretty much past the point of harvest (even though we were harvesting in mid July). That didn’t stop me. Still wanted to know what it was like.
They are beautiful and extraordinarily sticky on the purple flowered portion, so my husband to fend off many a bee. The other notable characteristic is the plentiful, sharp end of the leaves. They had to be handled with gloves and even then were incredibly sharp.
After harvesting, it was imperative to get all of the bugs out of the leaves. Because the artichokes are so dense, this required them to be submerged in a mixture of lightly salted water for a day. I changed out the water at least once until it was clear.
Once the water was drained, in order for me to be able to handle them given the sharp leaves, they had to be trimmed and the flowered portions removed.
The larger artichokes that were more mature (ripe) I found very difficult to clean and given that they were past maturity, I decided to focus on the smaller younger (albeit flowered) artichokes for cooking.
Once cleaned they were cooked similar to how I traditionally cook a store bought artichoke. Coincidentally this is also the way they were cooked in period recipes I have found, boiled or steamed until a leaf could be easily removed. This took longer than I expected, but we eventually got there.
Now I understand the importance of harvesting before they flower. In store bought artichokes that are still tightly closed and yield a thick meat center that varies depending on size and quality of the artichoke. However, the yield from the flowered wild artichoke was significantly less, almost a thin membrane like stem at the bottom.
Surprisingly, the flavor was similar but notably more intense in the wild artichoke. The texture was almost exactly the same, but the yield was significantly less, I am guessing from the maturity of the thistle.
Overall, the process was way more labor intensive and involved a lot of thorns. The purple flowered version definitely yielded better results since it was not as far developed as the more mature larger bulbs. For next time (because there will be a next time), I will ask him to ship them to me earlier in the summer and try it all over again.
To be continued….
Smithson, Louise (Mistress Helewyse de Birkestad). (2004) The cardoon and artichoke in 16th century Italian cooking. Retrieved January 8, 2013 from http://www.medievalcookery.com/helewyse/artichoke.html#2.
Gloning, Thomas (2012). Ouverature de Cuisine. Retrieved on January 8, 2013 from http://www.medievalcookery.com/notes/ouverture.html
Riley, Gillian. (2012) Giacomo Castelvetro The Fruit, Herbs, & Vegetables of Italy 1614. Prospect Books. Blackawton, Totnes, Devon.