Ode to the Artichoke

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A young artichoke that I planted in my parents’ vegetable patch in Suffolk.

I wrote this rather heated poem about sharing an artichoke last summer.

Plan

That we should suck hot butter and scrape the flesh
from each petal of a globe artichoke with our teeth.

That I will remove the choke 
and we will divide up its heart
and eat it.

Eating an artichoke is rather like a seduction or falling in love. At first prickly and standoffish (it is a thistle, after all), it looks like an armadillo or plate armour. It is not obvious that one would want progress beyond a wary admiration of its threatening exterior and eat it. Perseverance and the application of a little hot liquor (cooking) however, and the leaves yield to the pull of finger and thumb. The journey peeling from tough exterior to the concealed pleasure within is not an activity that can be hurried. As one gets closer, leaves become tender and translucent. Removing the unpalatable choke is that awkward moment of danger and deliberation before the heart is shared. What’s left, is a messy heap of discarded leaves…

Anyway… Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feating in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia (1986) was written over the course of twenty years living with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, whose need of marble and rock led them around the regions mentioned in her title. The book has durational quality that would be impossible to replicate had one not lived precisely as she did.

Here are some examples of Gray’s glorious langauge:

On including a Gingerbread recipe (p.296)

“I mention gingerbread here not only because of its association with the Leccese baroque, but because there is a sculptural pleasure in making it”

or,

On the social position of fish of the ‘sparidae’ family in Apuglia (p.129)

“Just as in Apollona in Naxos, when the caique sailed away with the fish of size, the inhabitants were left witha  plate of bony little fishes, so in Apulia I find a deep-seated conviction that the small fish, sardines, anchovies, vope, and the minute rockfish are the ‘destiny’ of working people.”

It is beautifully illustrated by Corinna Sargood.

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There are several very good recipes for artichokes in the book. Around a month ago, when it was still spring and small, spring artichokes were available, I made Carciofi Vicentini with some bought from the grocer Cruson in Camberwell for 50p apiece. I am frustrated that those I planted early in 2014 when I was in Suffolk have produced splendid artichokes that I have still not tasted. Unbeknownst to me, they only produce the edible part of the plant in the second year, and I am largely stranded in the library finishing my thesis in London.

Gray’s recipe for the small spring artichokes I bought was delicious (see below).

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Here’s the artichoke just after I trimmed it to the size Gray suggests.

RECIPE: CARCIOFI VICENTINI (p. 170)

“Use small spring artichokes with succulent stems in early youth. Peel back the outer leaves, cut off about a third of the calyx at the top, and cut off the stems – pare the tender part of these and cut into small pieces. Open out the artichokes a little, gently. Wipe them with the cut halves of a lemon; this prevents discolouration.

Fit them into an enamelled pan, bottoms down, putting the stems into the gaps in the pan between. Add water, but not as so to cover, then pour some olive oil into each of the slightly opened artichokes. Add salt, pepper, some coriander seeds, some leaves of mint, bring to the boil with the lid on, and cook vigoruosly for 20 minutes. The liquid will be partly absorbed and will partly evaporate.

Serve hot or cold, dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, and a little of their liquor. The reason that artichokes are always served to begin a meal is that their flowers and those of the allied cardoon family contain a milky substance which, dried, was used to coagulate milk in cheese-making. As with the fig, this has a peculiar effect on the taste of wine”

I did not have any mint, so just used coriander and it was still delicious. As a second course we had Aubergine Parmigiana and a green salad. I am very keen to try the artichokes fried with parmesan in the book.

The finished dish:

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To finish, here is Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s (1904-1973) ode to artichokes from ‘Elementary Odes’, which were first published between 1954-1959. The translation into English is below (not mine, I think it can be improved upon).

Oda a la alachofa
La alcachofa
de tierno corazón
se vistió de guerrero,
erecta, construyó
una pequeña cúpula,
se mantuvo
impermeable
bajo
sus escamas,
a su lado
los vegetales locos
se encresparon,
se hicieron
zarcillos, espadañas,
bulbos conmovedores,
en el subsuelo
durmió la zanahoria
de bigotes rojos,
la viña
resecó los sarmientos
por donde sube el vino,
la col
se dedicó
a probarse faldas,
el orégano
a perfumar el mundo,
y la dulce
alcachofa
allí en el huerto,
vestida de guerrero,
bruñida
como una granada,
orgullosa,
y un día
una con otra
en grandes cestos
de mimbre, caminó
por el mercado
a realizar su sueño:
la milicia.
En hileras
nunca fue tan marcial
como en la feria,
los hombres
entre las legumbres
con sus camisas blancas
eran
mariscales
de las alcachofas,
las filas apretadas,
las voces de comando,
y la detonación
de una caja que cae,
pero
entonces
viene
María
con su cesto,
escoge
una alcachofa,
no le teme,
la examina, la observa
contra la luz como si fuera un huevo,
la compra,
la confunde
en su bolsa
con un par de zapatos,
con un repollo y una
botella
de vinagre
hasta
que entrando a la cocina
la sumerge en la olla.
Así termina
en paz
esta carrera
del vegetal armado
que se llama alcachofa,
luego
escama por escama
desvestimos
la delicia
y comemos
la pacífica pasta
de su corazón verde.

Ode to the artichoke 

(Translated from Spanish by Jodey Bateman)

With a tender heart
Dressed up like a warrior,
Standing at attention, it built
A small helmet
Under its scales
It remained
Unshakeable,
By its side
The crazy vegetables
Uncurled
Their tendrills and leaf-crowns,
Throbbing bulbs,
In the sub-soil
The carrot
With its red mustaches
Was sleeping,
The grapevine
Hung out to dry its branches
Through which the wine will rise,
The cabbage
Dedicated itself
To trying on skirts,
The oregano
To perfuming the world,
And the sweet
Artichoke
There in the garden,
Dressed like a warrior,
Burnished
Like a proud
Pomegrante.
And one day
Side by side
In big wicker baskets
Walking through the market
To realize their dream
The artichoke army
In formation.
Never was it so military
Like on parade.
The men
In their white shirts
Among the vegetables
Were
The Marshals
Of the artichokes
Lines in close order
Command voices,
And the bang
Of a falling box.
But
Then
Maria
Comes
With her basket
She chooses
An artichoke,
She’s not afraid of it.
She examines it, she observes it
Up against the light like it was an egg,
She buys it,
She mixes it up
In her handbag
With a pair of shoes
With a cabbage head and a
Bottle
Of vinegar
Until
She enters the kitchen
And submerges it in a pot.
Thus ends
In peace
This career
Of the armed vegetable
Which is called an artichoke,
Then
Scale by scale,
We strip off
The delicacy
And eat
The peaceful mush
Of its green heart.

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