Each week we have a vegetable box delivered to our house and back in August I got a surprise when I collected the week’s box from our front path. A large flower lay across the colourful array of carrots, lettuce, beetroot and other vegetables. I felt a little like Sophie in der Rosenkavalier but this wasn’t a rose; with its spiny stem and its rich burst of purple florets it looked like an artichoke flower. But I was wrong – a neatly printed card told me helpfully that the flower was from a cardoon.
A cardoon? I had a vague recollection that this was some kind of exotic vegetable. I looked at the flower more carefully and I could see that the head was smaller and spinier than an artichoke although the colour and shape were quite similar.
The card told me that the flower was a special gift and, if we wanted to nurture it, we should place it in water in a rustic glass bottle. Rustic glass bottles are in short supply here but we have a rustic-ish vase so that had to do. The purple flower did look beautiful sitting on our kitchen table and I was inspired to find out more.
The cardoon originated in the Mediterranean region and is grown for its fleshy, leafy stems which feature on menus in France, Italy, Spain and North Africa. It was a popular vegetable in 19th century Britain but has long since fallen out of favour. The cardoon plant can grow to impressive heights and with its spiny, silvery-green foliage it’s worthy of a John Wyndham novel. It’s such an imposing plant that it can also be used to provide ornamental interest to a garden and with its many, showy, purple flowers it is a bee-favourite. When the cardoon is grown as a vegetable, the fleshy stems should be blanched by piling earth around them or by covering them with brown wrapping paper. This removes much of the bitterness that most varieties suffer from. Some people also recommend blanching the prepared stems by boiling in water. I believe there are new less bitter varieties available now.
Cardoons do not come high on most people’s agenda, so how did a cardoon flower find its way to our veg box? The missing link is Guy Watson, the boss of Riverford Organic who deliver our veg box. Watson is a great enthusiast and very keen to try growing forgotten or exotic vegetables. Cardoons are his latest thing and he has grown a small plot of them on his Devon farm. Our gift flower came from this plot and the vegetable has been available to buy this autumn from Riverford. Some nice publicity for his efforts came from Xanthe Clay of the Telegraph who made the pilgrimage to Devon to meet “farmer, veg-box supremo and Martin Shaw-lookalike, Guy Watson” and spent a happy time learning to prepare and cook the sinister vegetable. Xanthe was won over by Guy’s cardoons and asserted that, after removing the stringy bits and cooking until tender, the cardoon is “delicately, addictively delicious, distinctly artichoke-y” and “baked in a creamy, cheesy gratin they tasted sublime”.
Xanthe, you have convinced me. I will try some cardoons when I get a chance but I am still wondering what the relation is between the cardoon and the artichoke. Superficially, the two plants look rather similar but when you get down to the important business of eating them, they are quite different. Globe artichokes are grown for their edible immature flower heads and I can still remember my horror at being presented with an artichoke for the first time in a little restaurant in south west France. Luckily I was with a friend who knew what to do. Artichokes are an important commercial crop in Southern Europe, North Africa, California, South America and China. Cultivated cardoons, as we now know, are grown for their fleshy stems and stalks and are cultivated on a smaller scale in Northern Italy, Spain and Southern France. To complicate matters further, there is another member of the family, the wild cardoon, a smaller, spinier plant that grows in countries around the Mediterranean.
So, how did these seemingly related but actually rather different plants arise? More than twenty years ago, a scientist from the University of Madrid spent some time on this question. She examined a very large number of artichokes, cultivated cardoons and wild cardoons, growing in different locations, looking at their shape and structure. She concluded that all three were variants of the same species Cynara cardunculus. Presumably the artichoke and the cultivated cardoon were derived from the wild cardoon by selection for the desired characteristics. A recent study by a team of scientists from Italy used modern genetic techniques to examine the relationship between the three variants. They concluded that the globe artichoke and the cultivated cardoon were indeed both derived from wild cardoons, probably growing in Sicily or North Africa. Domestication of the artichoke started earlier and was probably under way in Roman times. Domestication of the cultivated cardoon began later but the wild cardoon was also the progenitor.
Let’s finish by returning to the man with the cardoons, Guy Watson. His latest venture is to bring Riverford to London at the Duke of Cambridge pub in Islington. Cardoon fritters have recently been on the menu!