Artichokes; a historical delicacy

Vicki Cooke unravels the historical uses of globe artichokes

Artichoke in bud
The stunning buds of artichokes are edible Image: Martin Mulchinock
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As Keeper of the Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court Palace, Vicki Cooke not only grows historical vegetables and fruit, but spends hours researching them too. This month artichokes are under the spotlight.

Artichoke in bud
The stunning buds of artichokes are edible
Image: Martin Mulchinock

When I talk about artichokes I mean the delicious, fat, globe artichokes, buds of a type of thistle, with associations of summer, olive oil and the Mediterranean. I shall leave discussion of the other type of artichoke, the Jerusalem artichoke – a pale, unattractive root crop, flaccid of flavour and scourge of the digestive tract, for later…perhaps much later.

King Henry VIII

Globe artichokes were said to be the favourite vegetable of Henry VIII who brought this plant to the English court following the fashions in the courts of mainland Europe. This gave an early association between artichokes and luxurious dining, and anything that graced the Kings table was bound to filter out into wider society. Thus it was that that anyone who was anyone in the 16th century planted large ‘artichoke gardens’ to make the most of this connection. It is therefore only appropriate that we grow lots of these plants in the kitchen garden at Hampton Court.

John Evelyn, writing his Discourse on Sallads in 1699, recommends the following – “the heads, being slit in quarters, first eaten raw, with oil, a little Vinegar, salt and Pepper gratefully recommends a Glass of Wine”. This may be due to an interesting after effect of eating artichokes – for a short while after they make other food and drink taste sweet. Perhaps Evelyn preferred his wine this way.

The first recorded use of artichokes for food and medicine come from Ancient Greece and the Latin name comes from a Greek myth where Zeus is once again philandering – this time with a young lady called Cynara. When Cynara sneaks away to visit her mother, he turns her into an artichoke plant.

The flower buds of globe artichokes
Image: Martin Mulchinock

As a Mediterranean plant it likes lots of sunshine, a deep, fertile soil and some rainfall, but hates waterlogging, particularly through the winter. If you live in a wet region then provide plenty of drainage in the soil and they should be fine. I have seen an artichoke patch in soggy Somerset thriving on a stone heap and there are some varieties more suited to northern climes.

Ornamental gardens

Though they will stop producing heads if you allow them to go to flower, I usually let a few flower as they are so beautiful to look at and are beloved by the bees. This is a vegetable that is genuinely handsome enough to grace the ornamental garden. The plants are large and take up about a square metre in the ground and their spreading leaves will outcompete anything else growing in that space so place them accordingly.

Speaking of ornamental artichokes, we must mention Cardoons. These are closer to the wild ancestor of this species and can get to a statuesque 2 metres with stunning flowers. They are a later addition to the dinner table and can be eaten in autumn, when the fresh shoots are blanched by excluding the light and eaten like celery. I confess to never trying this as they look so fibrous and uninviting but have it on good authority that they are delicious.

Though artichokes produce seed, it rarely comes up identical to the parent plant so even plants bought as named varieties can be variable. We grow ‘Green Globe’ and ‘Romanesco’ and they show considerable variation with some heads being long and pointed, some rounded, others spiky. I have marked the best plants and from these will separate ‘offsets’ – small plants at the base of the main plant. If cut cleanly from the parent with a few roots of their own they should produce new plants identical to the parents.

As to the final reputed property of the artichoke; there’s a reason that Henry VIII, with all his difficulties producing a male heir, may have eaten them in vast quantities…but I’ll leave that with you to ponder.

Vicki Cooke

About Vicki Cooke

Vicki has had a varied career in horticulture, from vegetable seed producer with the Heritage Seed Library to conservation manager with Plant Heritage, via the walled kitchen garden at Hampton Court Palace. Now working with the National Plant Collections, the perfect place to combine a love of plants with an interest in the diversity, history and culture associated with them. Always with a soft spot for edibles and a member of the RHS Fruit, Vegetable and Herb committee.

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