Here’s how you know the artichoke is a sexy vegetable: Its origin story begins with love, betrayal and divinity.
According to the myth, Zeus was visiting his brother Poseidon on an Aegean island, when Zeus met and fell in love with a mortal, Cynara, and made her into a goddess and brought her to his home on Mount Olympus. But Cynara longed for her old life and her family, and took to secretly sneaking away to visit them. When Zeus discovered this, he was furious – and turned her into an artichoke.
The layered purple flower of the artichoke, then, is no accident – this is the design of the gods. At least according to Greek mythology. According to biology, thistles make luscious flowers that are popular among pollinators.
The artichoke was cultivated from wild cardoon, a tougher (but similar-looking) plant. Based on writings of people like Roman author Pliny the Elder, it’s been treated as a culinary item at least since the 1st century CE, but other artichoke admirers put it earlier. Its true origins remain somewhat of a mystery. “The domestication of these crops is not yet fully understood and when and where it occurred are still unknown,” according to a 2007 study about artichokes and cardoons, published in Annals of Botany journal.
Wherever it came from, the artichoke is today a $35 million-a-year crop grown on more than 3,600 acres in Monterey County, according to the annual crop report compiled by the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. (It is glamorous and visible, but it is not an especially heavy hitter economically: Last year it was the county’s 19th highest-value crop.)
Still, California dominates the U.S. artichoke market, growing some 99.9 percent of these edible thistles. (Two-thirds of those are grown in Monterey County.) The artichoke’s modern success involves the 1948 designation of Marilyn Monroe as Castroville’s inaugural “artichoke queen.”
The beloved thistle even has a dedicated festival, now going on its 62nd year.
While the ’choke is at the center of the weekend-long Artichoke Festival, there’s also a ton of ancillary entertainment, like live music and artichoke-wine pairings (a regular ticket, plus $10). There are chef demos, thanks to $5,000 worth of artichokes donated by Scattini Farms for culinary masters to get creative in incorporating them into dishes. All vendors have been asked to emphasize artichokes (artichoke-shaped earrings, anyone?). There’s even artichoke ice cream.
But it’s the artichoke in its simplest form that gets people most excited. Festival co-chair Alex Garcia likes to wander around the grounds handing out stems as if they are flowers. “People smile when they receive one,” Garcia says.
The artichoke is in fact a flower bud, and that means it benefits from the same treatment as cut flowers: Bring one home, trim the stem and put it in water for a few hours. “They look awful on the grocery shelf, because they’re dehydrated,” says Pat Hopper.
Garcia describes Hopper, now retired, as the “queen of the artichoke,” for her prior work in marketing at Ocean Mist Farms and as manager at the California Artichoke Advisory Board. The Advisory Board, based in Watsonville, is tasked by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to promote artichokes and investigate pests, thanks to a $0.02/carton and $1/acre assessment on artichoke growers.
Preparation need not be complicated, even if eating an artichoke takes a little bit of effort – digging your teeth into the meat of each leaf, one by one, until you get to the heart. The eponymous ‘choke is the fluffy layer just on top of the heart – the part you need to work to get to, then remove with a fork before diving into the flavorful, meaty reward at the base. Hopper prefers to think of this process less as work and instead as fun. “It’s a foodyou play with,” she says.
All you need to do is trim stems, boil or steam artichokes for roughly 25 to 45 minutes (depending on size) then drain upside down. Dipping is optional.
Hopper prefers her artichokes microwaved (wrapped in plastic wrap, upside-down for seven minutes), no sauce. “I like my artichokes naked,” she says. “The taste is just phenomenal.”
THE ARTICHOKE FESTIVAL happens 10am-6pm Saturday, June 11 and 10am-5pm Sunday, June 12 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. $15; $5/children; $10/seniors, military. 633-2465, artichokefestival.org.