Artichokes encapsulate in their tight buds, the divergence of British and Sicilian food. Here they are seldom seen, priced as a luxury but rarely treated with respect. We are charged a fortune for an unopened flower, all too often a bashed and wilted version of its youthful self. There’s a terribly chi chi store in Mayfair that likes to arrange them in vases, for which conceit you can add on an extra three quid. And then when it comes to the cooking them, we seem to be impossibly wedded to boiling and effeteness, painstakingly dipping individual petals in hollandaise, until the precious heart has gone cold and clammy.
In Sicily, (and throughout Italy) on the other hand, they are ubiquitous from new year to easter (their season is earlier than our’s). They are abundant and cheap, the markets pile them high and you buy carrier bags full of them for a few euros. And there are different varieties and sizes; small elongated purple ones for braising, choke free varieties, swollen steel grey green spheres. There is even a festival dedicated to artichokes in the village of Cerda, east of Palermo. They are a delight of spring and central to the food of Easter festivities.
They are my favourite vegetable, unequivocally. Even asparagus or freshly podded peas can’t compete. Sweet and minerally, they also create a physical tingle on the tongue – almost as though temporarily anaesthetising it. But equally, many people remain unimpressed. The leaf tearing mundanity never compensated for by the merest mention of flesh from their bases, and then the itching powder nastiness of the choke that has to be dealt with before that stone cold heart. This is why other recipes might convert, ones that don’t demand such investment of time for relatively little reward (if you don’t love artichokes as I do).
Unless you have the luck and finances to be able to shop at Borough Market, the only way most of us in Britain can guarantee enough artichokes to allow culinary frivolity is to grow our own. As plants they can be ferociously temperamental weaklings, or verdant to the point of being rampantly intimidating. When young, they can be mown down by slugs, drained of life by blackfly and succumb to trench foot in a cold and damp winter. But, established clumps are an impressive thing, up to two metres of silvered, scrolling serrated leaves, topped with spiky, prehistoric flower buds, that, unpicked, explode into an imperial purple inflorescence of bee magnet.
My experience has mostly been of the weaklings. I have struggled to get them growing on the allotment. It is exposed high on the side of a valley, and few make it through the winter. I think the problem has been that I’ve been relying on bought, seed-raised plants. Which I have discovered, are unreliable and widely variable in vigour and hardiness. So, the best plan of action is to seek out a friendly fellow enthusiast who has a clump that has proven its worth in both longevity and productivity, and in the spring (March and April), take a cutting of the shoots that appear around the sides of the clump, leaf and root together. These small clones will still need some love and devotion in their first year. But good genes should kick in, and if raised in a fertile, sunny, well drained spot, kept free of strangling weeds, and protected with a winter mulch from the worst of the wet and cold, begin to reward in a couple of years with a reliable bounty of loveliness.
Back to the eating of them then. This is a simple Roman, not Sicilian recipe. It involves deep frying, which as you know I am very fond of, and salt (ditto). The name is supposed to come from the time when Rome’s Jewish community was confined to a limited area of the city, and with space at a premium, fried their food on stoves. Artichokes were disdained by their Catholic neighbours, and so the dish, and its cooks conjoined. All a bit tenuous I know, but I’m sure there’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere.
Carciofi alla guidia (Jewish artichokes)
Fill a fryer, or large, deep saucepan with oil 5-6cm deep and heat. Olive is expensive, and this requires a profligate amount, so unless you’re determined to be authentic, a milder vegetable oil will be just fine, but make sure it’s clean, as old, well used oil can make the food taste bitter and burnt.
At this stage, you don’t want chip pan hot, so keep it on a low to medium heat.
Ideally, you want a variety of artichoke that is not spiny, and if all you have are very large and tough ones, they may need steaming beforehand, for maybe 10-15 minutes.
Leave the stem on your artichokes that they come with, taking off just a few millimetres at the base if they’re very dry. You can also peel very large and stringy stems, just to make them a little more edible. Trim off the very toughest outer petals and if they’re very prickly, take a sturdy knife and trim the tops off.
Take your artichokes slide them into the oil. If you get a ferocious and explosive sizzle, it’s too hot, so turn down the heat. The artichokes need to cook gently, poach almost, in their bath . A steady stream of small bubbles is the desired effect, rather than Yellowstone hot spring. This slow process penetrates through to the heart of the artichoke ensuring it’s cooked throughout.
After ten-fifteen minutes, remove them and let them cool and drain on kitchen paper.
Now it’s chip shop time. Turn the heat up and open all the windows.
Take your cooled artichokes and splay the petals out to open up the flower. If they contain an inedible choke, remove that now. Turn them upside down, and press them down to flatten them out.
Wipe all the oil off your greasy hands, and generously season the splayed out bloom with salt, getting into all the nooks and crannies.
When the oil is hot enough (I have an old fashioned jam thermometer that handily has “Deep Fry” marked on it), return your artichokes to their doom.
This will only take a few minutes, between three and five.
The hotter, faster oil takes the cooked artichokes and turns them to a crisp thing that you can eat in its entirety, no faffing around breaking off individual petals, no overflowing bowls of detritus. If you’re able to find, or grow them, I urge and implore you to try cooking them this way.