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Plant writings, gardening thoughts & observations of Paul Hervey - Brookes, Award Winning Garden Designer & Plantsman.
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Monday, 29 June 2009

Scolymus, Stachys, Helianthus & Cynara.

After writing about Tea, which I adore, I began to think about other plants which have had such an influence. Immediately there were two many options and some of those, although I am sure interesting to pursue, where not terribly exciting to me.

I have therefore struck upon a plant who’s immature flowers I positively gorge upon through the first parts of summer and after its over I look forward to eating copious amounts of its unrelated counter part. Artichokes, or as none artichoke lovers may call them, ‘make me chokes’.

Globe artichoke, Cynara scolymus, is one of the oldest continually cultivated vegetables and was a main stay of ancient Greek & Roman tables. Prepared in a earthen glazed bowl, ours all being chipped, with some plump over ripe tomatoes, a liberal splash of olive oil, torn basil leaves and a good course grinding of salt & pepper, you could when staring into the mixture, be transported back to Imperial Rome. The combination oozes not only the warmth but the intensity of a Mediterranean summer.

Artichokes were introduced into England in the 16th century and was grown in monastic gardens both for decorative reasons and as a vegetable. However, history is littered with references to them, in the 4th Century BC Theophrastus stated that they were most pleasant boiled or eaten raw.

In 1730 and a description of culinary variation I particularly like, Tournefort says, “ The Artichoke is well known at the table. What we call the bottom is the thalamus on which the embryos of seeds are placed. The leaves are the scales of the empalement. The choke is the florets, with a chaffy substance intermixt. The French & Germans boil the heads as we do, but the Italians generally eat them raw with salt, oil and pepper”. Something which I can testify as true from a conversation I had with Felice Tocchini of Fusion Brasserie. Whilst visiting our nursery he picked out an Italian variety and told me the best way to eat them was raw with pepper, salt & oil.

However, I have made a delicious Artichoke au Gratin from a 1950’s french cookery book which belonged to my grandmother and with the addition of a little garlic, cheese and cream it is unrecognisable and utterly more-ish.

We grow two varieties which we sell at the nursery, the original ‘Green Globe’, which is a french variety not to be confused with the F1 modern hybrid and an Italian ‘Violetta di Chioggia’

The thistle like flowers when not being eaten do make highly attractive border additions, rich violet blue set of against the grey-green scales stoutly reaching up to 6ft. Some gardeners use globe artichokes in exactly the same way as Cardoon’s, Scolymus cardunculus, blanching the inner leaf stalks in the early part of the year. Cardoon’s need a lot of room and are renowned for there spiny growth, however it has its followers, Pliny recommended its medical properties and Dioscorides makes reference to large scale production around Great Carthage.

Both Cynara scolymus and Scolymus cardunculus, although different genus, are related being members of the Compositae family, which is the 2nd largest flowering family. Also a member of the same family and therefore related sharing the floral number/key is Jerusalem Artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus. The only ‘Artichoke’ which is in no way related is the Chinese Artichoke, Stachys affinis, which is a member of the mint family, Labiatae or as its known for standardisation Lamiaceae.

There is an irony with Jerusalem Artichoke, its native to the Northern American Plains, prolific in lakes of Canada and reaching Sastatchewan but it does not grow naturally in the lands historically known to us as Judea. I really enjoy slow roasting the Jerusalem Artichoke and have always been a little disappointed that there are no traditional indigenous jewish recipes using it, especially for a plant I had always taken to grow on their soil. However, enlightenment came as to the origin of the Jerusalem Artichoke and sadly for me it was not some mystical story created in the City of Gold, no King David on Temple Mount tucking into a plate of Artichokes, at least not this artichoke, beneath his temple, no it actually is a corruption of an Italian word. Italians referred to Helianthus Tuberosus as the sun-flower artichoke, due no doubt to the small golden flowers it produces. So in Italian Jerusalem Artichoke is Girasola articiocco, Girasola meaning, ‘turning to the sun’.

Joseph Hooker writing in 1897 states, “In the year 1617, Mr John Goodyer of Mapledurham Hampshire, received two small roots of it from Mr. Franqueville, of London. In October of the same year, Mr Goodyer wrote an account of it for T. Johnson, who printed it in his edition of Gerard’s ‘Herball’, which appeared in 1636 where it is called Jerusalem Artichoke. Prior to that is was also called by the same name in ‘Paradisus’ published in 1629. He also gives the reader some recipes, boiled and skinned to be eaten with butter and wine along with baking in pies. He also informs the reader that in some parts they are known as potatoes of Canada, being introduced by the French from Canada and cooked in milk served with beef”.

On a cultivational note, I have found it is best to grow them in the same spot for 3 years and then relocate the best tubers, as left in the same spot they seem to grow smaller in following years. However, the trick here is to be able to clear the ground of the original bed as they grow from the smallest of tubers.

My last ‘choke’ is the Chinese artichoke. I find this is grown best in a permanent cold frame because it seems to disappear over winter otherwise. In china, Chinese artichoke is known as Tsanyungtzu & in Japan its known as Chorogi. It was first introduced in 1888 by Dr. M. T. Masters and is widely eaten in France. Just like Jerusalem artichoke you harvest over winter. A light scrub and a bake in the oven makes for a nice nutty addition to roast potato’s. They are rather too easy to look after, plant in the cold frame, leave them to do there own thing and harvest in winter as needed or you can eat them raw in salads.

Chinese Artichoke on Foodista


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