The name artichoke is derived from the Arab word, Al-Kharshuf, but the Italians have developed the many varieties right across Europe to England where the 17th–century writer and gardener John Evelyn gave them the name “noble thistles”.
Artichokes were introduced into Italy in the 15th Century by the Saracens and are one of the most ancient cultivated vegetables with historians agreeing that they were most certainly started in the Mediterranean. Many are of the belief that artichokes originated in Sicily and some even believe that artichokes were originally from Northern Africa. The Dutch introduced artichokes to England and the French brought them to Louisiana and Italian immigrants, in turn, brought them to California!
The Romans deal with artichokes in a rather drastic and dramatic manner, chopping, trimming and cutting the vegetables until there is little left of them; but when pared this way the Romans refer to this as “capare” which means that the inedible parts are done away with and there is then no need to spit any inedible bits out!
Trimmed artichokes are charming when prepared the alla Romana method where the head is stuffed to overflowing with mint and garlic and then braised with their stems upward until they are sufficiently tender to be eaten with a spoon.
Artichokes done the alla giudia (Jewish style) are also delightful. They are fried whole until crisp. These are two of many excellent reasons to visit Rome at the beginning of spring where artichokes spill over in supermarkets, corner shops and markets where they are bought and cooked in so many different ways; a good example being artichokes cooked to perfection with pasta and pecorino.
Italians consume great quantities of artichokes prepared in plentiful ways – both raw and cooked, as starters or rolled in batter and deep–fried, baked or stuffed with tuna or combined with other vegetables. Large artichoke hearts are often sliced, breaded and fried in olive oil, are added to omelettes and on Lazio’s Bay of Gaeto, artichokes are cooked and served with ink fish!