Artichokes: A Roman Vegetable

Artichokes can be a revelation in the kitchen.

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Artichokes can be a revelation in the kitchen.

Artichokes can be a revelation in the kitchen.

© Shutterstock

Ristorante Piperno in the Roman district of Trastevere, the Jewish quarter, is one of those classic restaurants that time does not seem to have touched. It features a dish that is ingrained in Roman cuisine: carciofi alla giudia, or artichokes in Jewish style.

Artichokes are one of the cornerstones of Roman cooking. Their season starts in March and from then onwards, they can be found at all the markets in the Eternal City. There even is a specifically Roman variety of artichoke, with protected origin status and grown in the surrounding countryside: the carciofo romanesco.

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Unlike the French varieties of artichoke, like Camus de Bretagne, the Roman variety can be eaten whole. It lacks the so-called ‘choke’, the feathery hairs inside the artichoke that have to be removed. Their texture renders them inedible. As a general rule, if the artichoke is a large variety, only the soft base, also known as the heart of the artichoke, is eaten, sometimes also the flesh attached to the leaves. The choke is usually removed after cooking.

With the carciofi romaneschi you can safely dispense with this procedure – nevertheless, you should also generously trim these artichokes. The outer, dark green leaves and the tips of the leaves are removed. The stem of the plant is peeled, but not cut off. That would be a shame, because it is a particularly tender part of this delicate vegetable with an intense flavour.

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Carciofi alla Romana

There are two ways of preparing artichokes in traditional Roman cuisine: either deep-fried in the Jewish style or cooked in the Roman style called carciofi alla romana. The deep-frying is done in two stages: during the first stage the artichokes cook through in oil that is not too hot. "In the restaurant kitchen, this is done before the guests arrive," explain the waiters at Ristorante Piperno. It is during the second stage in hotter oil that they become crispy – this is done as soon as a diner orders the dish so the artichokes will be tender on the inside and crispy on the outside.

Carciofi alla romana, on the other hand, the artichokes, trimmed in the same fashion, are cooked in a covered pot with olive oil, lemon, garlic and like mint, parsley and oregano for 20 to 30 minutes. It si a simple but very popular recipe.

Almost all of Italy's famous chefs have used the artichoke over the years to create delicious specialities. One of the first was a certain Bartolomeo Scappi, personal chef to Pope Pius V, who as early as the 16th century advised stuffing the plant with a mixture of lean veal, ham, cheese, eggs, spices, garlic and herbs.

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Origins

It is still unclear where the artichoke originally came from. Many botanists assume that it has its home either in Arabia, Iran or the Mediterranean region. It is said that the Florentine trader Filippo Strozzi brought it from Sicily to Florence in the middle of the 15th century. It then made its way to France and Great Britain. Until the French Revolution, the artichoke was a sign of wealth and refined lifestyle. German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) famously cultivated them in his Weimar garden.

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Preserved Artichokes

The Romans have yet another reason for valuing the artichoke. In the late 19th century, it was a certain Angelo Valiani who invented carciofini sott'olio, artichoke hearts cooked and preserved in olive oil. Valiani owned several artichoke fields and personally took care of the cultivation, harvesting and processing. He sold the large specimens and kept the small ones: he removed the outer leaves, cooked them and then preserved them in jars under fine olive oil. He made his name and fortune with these tender little vegetables.

When his son was born, Valiani wanted to call him Carciofino, or ‘little artichoke'. When the child was to be baptised in the cathedral of Orbetello, the priest refused because he thought a child should not be named after a vegetable. But Valiani said: "Father, if our Pope Leo XIII bears the name of a wild beast, then I suppose my son may be named after a harmless plant." The child was christened with the intended name.


How do you eat artichokes?

Small artichokes can be trimmed, cooked and eaten whole. Large artichokes are either trimmed and used in various recipes, or they are cooked whole in boiling water until tender, about 30-40 minutes. Once slightly cooled, they are served whole and are plucked leaf by leaf, dipped in sauce or vinaigrette and the flesh at the bottom of the leaves eaten. With large specimens, the so-called chokes, or fine hairs, must be removed - best with a knife or a spoon. This reveals the delicious base, the best part of the artichoke. The base, also called the heart, is then eaten with a knife and fork, drizzled with vinaigrette or sauce. A hearty, anchovy-flavoured tomato sauce is also perfect for dipping artichokes.