Artichokes are native to the Eastern Mediterranean, and with an ancient past. It is thought that Egyptians enjoyed its spiny, bitter leaves, and according to scholars and botanists Etruscans began cultivating this “flower” in this area as the VIII century BC paintings on the walls of the Etruscan tombs in the Tarquinia necropolis testify. The philosopher Theophrastus who lived in 3rd century BC Greece decsribes the plant as beneficial; and so did Pliny the Elder, who also waxed poetic about the plant’s use in ancient Roman cuisine.
It’s highly unlikely however that the vegetable back then was anything like what we’re eating nowadays. Firstly, artichokes no longer grow wild, they are the result of a long process of selection and domestication of wild cultivars.
In fact, for many centuries, cultivation of the artichoke stopped altogether, only to reappear with the arrival of the Arabs in southern Italy (approximately 600-800 AD). The Italian word for artichoke, carciofo, comes from the Syrian term “ardi shoki.”
Caterina de’ Medici, wife of Henry II, was very fond of artichokes. French and Spanish settlers introduced artichokes to the New World starting from California and later Louisiana. The Dutch brought them over to Britain where they immediately became a success, so much so that King Henry VIII had them growing in his kitchen’s vegetable garden.
We agree with early 19th century gastronomy expert Grimod de La Reynière, who extolled the virtues of the artichoke stating that “It is very valuable in the kitchen: it is almost irreplaceable. A veritable curse when it’s missing. We must add that it is a very healthy and nurtitious food, easily digestible and with slight aphrodisiac properties.”
Artichokes are superfood with powerful nutrional properties. Rich in iron, calcium, potassium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and C, carciofi also contain citric acid, tannins and sugars that are allowed even to diabetics. Artichokes are tonic, liver stimulant, cough-calming, blood purifying, heart fortifying, kidney stone dissolving and naturally detoxing.
In the region of Lazio, of which Rome is the capital, the representative artichoke is the Carciofo Romanesco, aka “mammola” or “cimarolo.” The climate and sandy soil in the Lazio seafront region with hilly inland elevation is extremely favorable for the cultivation of this plant. When choosing your carciofi in the market, look for 10cm spherical firm bulbs, with compact leaves that snap and squeak when pulled off the stem, and purple-green tinges. Any bulbs with soft parts, blemishes or loose leaves will be a disappointment in the kitchen. The smell should be grassy and almost pungent. Their tongue-tying, slightly bitter flavor eases off with cooking. Carciofo Romanesco is tender all the way to the core (and stem, the most delicious part) which has very little fuzz.
We shared a few popular Roman artichoke recipes, but there are many others. One of my favorite ways of eating artichokes is shaving them raw in a large bowl, dressing them with lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil and seasoning with salt, freshly cracked black pepper and slivers of aged Parmigiano Reggiano. Another favorite recipe is carciofi alla matticella, that is stuffed with chopped garlic, calamint and salt, and then fire-roasted half buried in vine embers and ashes until browned on the edges and delightfully crisp.
Because of their astringency and tannins, artichokes are tough to pair with wine. Cooking mellows the acidity and tannins. In that case you could choose a smooth, medium-bodied white wine with low acidity and low tannins. Other elements you should look for when choosing wine with artichokes: complex profile, low sapidity and a sweet, persistent bouquet.
Store your fresh artichokes like you would any flower, stems immersed in fresh water. Just don’t wait too long before cooking them, or they’ll bloom!
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.