Artichokes Part One: Food?

Have you ever seen a purple flower and, feeling chancy, eaten it? The first person to ever eat an artichoke did. The artichoke (pictured above) little resembles food. To an unknowing forager, the artichoke’s bulb would as likely contain food as a tree trunk or a cloud. But tap that maple trunk and you have syrup, and stand under that raincloud and you have water.

Then, when the forager was set on eating the inedible flower, he or she has to get past the plant’s natural defenses; its petals taper to a spear tip. When I was harvesting artichokes in Emilia-Romagna, the spear tips often slipped through my gloves and into my skin. A quick prick–no, a puncture–and long after you’ve recoiled the tips stays with you, sending shivers down your arm, as if you’ve been sunburned or taken too much Advil. The shivers keep you up at night. Wine is the cure.

 In June 2010, I was charged with harvesting a crop of artichokes. Unlike the forager, I knew about the choke inside. Here’s how the harvest goes. You walk to the flowers with a bucket and a scissors, along the tips of grape trellises, in the shade of apricot trees, past a few rusty shotgun shells, and to the artichoke field that opens where the vineyard ends. Here, the mountain curves back on itself. You see across the valley: squares of vineyard, crumbling villas on the high ridge, green everywhere, a sun somewhere, a farmer stalking in the nearest vineyard. He waves hello.

I snipped the bulbs from their stems. Mindful of the spear tips, I went from plant to plant, taking the last of the summer’s artichoke crop. I watched the farmer tend his vines across the valley. Shortly, the owner of the farm where I was staying came out and worked on the far artichoke rows. He was shirtless. His toddler son ran screaming among the plants. I worked slowly, drinking in the view, the breeze, and even the jab of a spear tip, a happy reminder of being alive.

Second, when the artichoke has been snipped, the bulb must be reduced to a heart. The unknowing forager must have stumbled here. (Did he or she first try to eat the outer leaves, or to chew and swallow the raw stem?) To get to the edible part, strip away the petals (more spearing) until you reach oily leaves that are mostly yellow. Cut off the yellow tip. Scrape out the choke.

Third, you need to rub the hearts with lemon. Acid prevents them from browning. The forager probably had no lemon (or vinegar), but if he or she ate them raw, as is probable, the first eaten artichokes were likely so fresh they were not yet brown. In parts of Italy, Italians slice artichokes thinly and eat them raw dipped in olive oil. We cooked ours. Here are some of the June 2010 artichokes staying fresh in a lemony bath while we finished prepping the others:

Fourth, cook the artichoke. We cooked ours over a wood fire. Sticks turned to ash in the flames (we used ashes to wash dishes), and embers were still glowing in the pre-dawn the next morning. Early, we drove the cauldron to a small food processor in Brisighella, the nearby town, and churned the artichokes into a coarse paste. For the next three weeks, we put it on toast. But, as he or she lacked a lemon, the unknowing forager was likely also short on a neighborhood food processor. Was that raw, scratchy first artichoke worth the spearing, the wrestling from the stem, and the stripping of leaves? As a knowing harvester in 2010 and a knowing eater in 2012, I hope it was.

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