Artichokes truly embody the essence of the Mediterranean: sentimental and sensual but at the same time hardy and a model of perseverance. They totally dry out in the summer, only to bud miraculously from the earth with the very first rains, their lush leaves emerging like artesian wells from the soil.
They grow very easily, or so you might be told. Artichokes don’t need much water, Greeks will tell you, neither do they require extra care; they simply take root, never to leave your garden. Unfortunately, not in our garden! We have been trying to grow them for years, and we actually managed to get a glorious crop of the luscious large and meaty globe artichokes that thrive in the Peloponnese.
But the next year only two plants survived, and the year after not even one. We realized that these were not the kind of artichokes that were prepared to tolerate our poor, sandy soil. We have plenty of totally wild artichokes, or gaidouragantha (donkey’s thorns) as they are called in Greece. But only in Crete, in Sicily, and in Cyprus there are still people who appreciate them and peel them carefully so that they can enjoy their unique sweet-bitter flavor.
Once more we decided to try the local purple, semi-wild artichokes, planting just a few from shoots a neighbor gave us. Although we didn’t have high hopes, these artichokes seemed to like our garden, and once they took root, offered us a few of small, thorny buds which are delicious, although a pain to peel.
We now have a few rows that give us plenty of artichokes; but they are not ready in January, when the traditional Roman or the artichokes from the Peloponnese offer their buds. For us, though it is nice to be able to harvest the last artichokes in May, sometimes late enough so that our Kea Artisanal visitors can enjoy them. And because I have plenty, I keep a few in the freezer and also fill jars with marinated artichokes, and often braise them with veal or lamb and finish with avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce). These are traditional Greek ways of cooking the spring’s delicate buds/vegetables. But my favorite dish is from Liguria, the northwestern Italian region: artichokes are combined with fish and complemented with the most light and fragrant olive-oil-green-garlic mashed potatoes!
On a small side-street along the quay of Genoa’s old historic port, behind a non-descript door that one can easily miss, lies Antica Osteria di Vico Palla, a restaurant I adore! Housed in an historic 16th-century building, this honest osteria serves traditional Ligurian fish prepared with seasonal ingredients. I have visited Genoa on a few occasions and I always look forward to eating there. It is one of those rare places that make you feel as if you are in someone’s home, a nonna just a step away in the kitchen. No trace of pretense, no overstatements, just pure and perfectly balanced flavors.
A rainy April Sunday, a few years back, I went for lunch. I was the only foreigner among large families that included babies in prams as well as grandparents. From a small list crammed with tempting dishes, I was intrigued by the combination of artichokes and Monkfish; it was superb!
As soon as I returned home I tried to recreate it using my garden’s artichokes, green garlic and chervil – I believe the original dish was with an otherworldly fragrant parsley. Italians rarely douse artichokes with lemon, as we do in Greece, and this is one of the rare occasions where I don’t miss it.