These days everywhere I turn I see artichokes. Strange, they should be showing up in a month or so. The freeze of the past weeks has woken them up I guess and now all the markets in Rome are proudly displaying their Roman artichokes (made in Sicily or Sardegna…). I say proudly because artichokes have been fundamental in Roman cuisine (they call them “mammole” here) all the way back to the ancient Romans and even before. I’ve never been a big fan of carciofi until I had some fresh artichoke salad (very thinly cut with parmesan scales, olive oil, lemon juice and freshly ground black pepper, as simple as that) so I had to document myself and I think I came up with some pretty interesting stuff. Who knew, for instance, that their scientific name (Cynara) comes from the name of a girl that Zeus himself seduced and subsequently transformed in what had to become the artichoke? Did you know that in 1948 a starlet called Marilyn Monroe was voted first ever Artichoke Queen at the Artichoke Festival in Castroville, California? I also think it’s funny that that city defines itself the “artichoke center of the world” when 90% of the world production of artichokes is concentrated in the Mediterranean region (56% from Italy alone). Some people really go crazy with artichokes at these festivals, on both sides of the Atlantic! Check out the shit they come up with at Castroville’s Italian twin city Ladispoli’s Artichoke Fair (that’s on the seaside outside of Rome)! I mean, come on, the artichoke turtle? And the artichoke ship? Who came up with THAT?! And how about some artichoke sex, anybody? Come to Castroville, CA and you’ll understand the true meaning of “food porn,” no doubt!
Coming from the chard family, artichokes have been known in their wild form since ancient Egyptian times. The Romans ate them. The Greeks ate them too, even thought they were of divine descent and had aphrodisiac powers. It was domesticated and cultivated in Sicily (the island was a Greek colony in ancient times) and in the 15th century it was brought to continental Italy, first Naples and then Rome and Tuscany, where it was discovered by Caterina De’ Medici, who ate tons of ’em and also took them to France when she married King Henry II. In a strange case of backward food colonization, the Dutch brought the artichoke to the Americas around the same time that Italians started to call tomatoes their own.
Artichokes are plain and simply good for you. They will stimulate and regulate your liver, purify your blood, melt your gall stones, kill your bad cholesterol, clean your intestines and much more. Bitters made from artichokes (i.e. the famous “Cynar”) are real medicinal tonics. In fact, artichokes are so good that Romans had to find a way to temper their healthiness with something BAD. And they did. They came up with mentuccia (which translates to pennyroyal), a wild herb found in the Rome area in abundance, and the aromatic base for most Roman recipes involving artichokes. Let’s say this, mentuccia isn’t bad in itself. Being part of the mint family (even though it doesn’t taste minty at all) it’s even got some positive qualities. Ancient Romans flavored their wine with it and Apicius (the funky Roman chef) made use of it in his recipes. But pennyroyal oil is extremely toxic, so much so that it was used against rattlesnakes and as a pesticide. Above all, the oil extract was used to stimulate menstrual flow and as a way to induce abortion, the result of which was that many young and innocent girls died a painful death. Kurt Cobain wrote a famous song about it (“Pennyroyal Tea”) and said in interviews that many of his friends used it against depression, with little success. Let’s see how we can combine these two ingredients harmlessly to produce some real delicacies. (And you can still make these preparations if you can’t find pennyroyal; try substituting spearmint or just going without it.)
Related: Photos: Baba’s Eat Ali’s Artichokes (alternatively you can click on one of the photos below and launch a slideshow with larger version of the images).