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In Praise of Sicilian Artichokes
by Roberta Gangi

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Sicilian artichoke.A longstanding theory suggests that artichokes actually originated in Sicily. That would be a unique distinction in a land whose culture and cuisine is an amalgamation of foreign ones. In any event, we know that the globe artichoke, cynara scolymus, cultivated in some fifty varieties, evolved in the western or central Mediterranean. Artichokes are in the asteraceae (compositae) family. Shown here, the purplish wild spiny artichoke, featuring tough leaves ending in thorns, is the most popular form in Sicily, where one town, Cerda (in Palermo province) has erected a tall sculptural monument to this most singular vegetable in the main square.

This thistle-like perennial should not be confused with the Jerusalem artichoke, related to the sunflower. More closely related to the artichoke is its country cousin, the cardoon (cynara cardunculus), a delicacy whose comparatively slender stalks are harvest in late Autumn. Sicilians, however, make little distinction here, and sometimes consume the thicker stalks of the artichoke as though they were, in fact, cardoons. The buds of the true cardoon (known as carduna to Sicilians) are not usually eaten, while those of scolymus are consumed as artichokes. Cardoons are taller than artichoke plants, which grow closer to the ground. Some artichokes are quite large, and range in colour from deep green to yellowish or even purplish. Most domesticated varieties have no thorns.

The artichoke was known in Norman Sicily and Moorish Spain, though it appears not to have been cultivated in mainland Italy during that period. This suggests an Arab origin. The Latin word is cynara, while the Italian word carciofo is a cognate of the Arabic kharshuff. In Sicily, Greek and Roman artistic representations of the purple flower suggest that the species was present centuries before the medieval Saracen conquest of the island. The literary work of Pliny and other ancient writers associated with Greece and Sicily suggest that little distinction was made between the artichoke and the cardoon, and this is consistent with modern Sicilian usage. Artichokes, which don't like too much moisture, are harvested twice annually, beginning as early as March. The Spring harvest is more substantial than the Autumn crop.

Freshly boiled thorny artichokes.They're not the foundation of any diet, but artichokes are a good source of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), niacin, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, phosphorus, calcium and fiber. The substance cynarin is thought to benefit digestion, while the juice of the leaves is used in skin cosmetics. An artichoke liqueur bearing the trade name Cynar is made in Sicily. Artichokes can be prepared in many ways. As well as the heart, the soft inner leaves can be eaten if cooked well. Most of the world's artichokes are produced in Italy, where Sardinia rivals Sicily for quantity. Until recently, artichokes were regarded as an esoteric specialty food by many people beyond the Mediterranean region. This is gradually changing. With fava beans, the artichoke is an important ingredient of fritella (fritedda), a Spring dish in Sicily.

Spanish settlers introduced the artichoke to the New World as early as the seventeeth century, and Italian immigrants began the cultivation of other varieties in California during the twentieth century. To the ancient Romans, the artichoke was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Artichoke festivals are not unique to Sicily. Marilyn Monroe was once crowned "Artichoke Queen" of a Californian town.

About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary history.

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© 2003 Roberta Gangi