Make the most of artichokes
PUBLISHED: 17:23 06 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:00 20 February 2013
Ed Berger takes a closer look at one of the Romans' favourite herbs
Globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is native to the Mediterranean and was cultivated by the Ancient Greeks and Romans who considered it to have aphrodisiac properties. In fact the Roman scholar Pliny recorded that artichoke was more valued than any other garden herb! Its use in England dates back to the 1530s, when it was first grown in Henry VIIIs garden at Newhall.
Artichokes (also known as cardoons) are actually unopened flower buds and come into season in early summer. Most of those found in our shops are imported from southern Europe but English artichokes are increasingly available from specialist grocers and farmers markets, sometimes slightly smaller than their Italian cousins, but equal in taste.
Although artichoke is best known as a vegetable with its distinctive sweet, nutty and slightly bitter taste, it has been used for centuries as a medicine for healthy digestion and liver function and is closely related to the well-known milk thistle. Herbalists prefer to use artichokes bitter leaves, however the main active chemical, called cynarin is found in all parts of the plant, making globe artichokes a delicious and nutritious super-food.
Artichoke leaf improves the appetite and digestion, its slightly bitter taste stimulating the production of digestive juices. A recent scientific trial reported that artichoke extract reduced symptoms of nausea, abdominal fullness, pain, gas and constipation. Artichoke also has a protective and regenerating effect on the liver and increases bile production. Researchers have also found that it reduces cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as improving the ratio of good high-density lipoproteins (HDL cholesterol), to bad low-density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol), so helping to maintain cardiovascular health. As if this wasnt enough, artichoke also improves kidney function and acts as a potent diuretic. Is it any wonder that artichoke has been a valued medicine for more than 2,000 years?
Harvesting and use
Artichoke leaves are harvested on a dry day in early summer and then hung in a well-ventilated room for one or two weeks until dry. The normal dose is around 1g of dried leaf infused for 10 minutes in just boiled water, repeated three times daily before meals. The tea is slightly bitter, which explains its powerful effects on the digestion and liver. Artichoke leaf is safe for everyone except pregnant or breast-feeding women, although there are no risks associated with eating artichoke vegetable.
Artichoke can be grown as a perennial cropping vegetable in the kitchen garden but will also hold its own in a sunny, well drained border. It reaches a height of up to two metres, has elegant pale grey green foliage and produces around seven globes which are harvested in early summer for culinary use. In August any un-harvested globes mature into magnificent purple flowers up to 15cm in diameter. Artichoke is therefore an immensely rewarding plant to cultivate, at once a food, a medicine and an attractive garden plant.
Cooking fresh Artichoke
Wash the artichoke under cold running water then stand upright in a saucepan of two to three inches of lightly salted boiling water, cover and cook for 30 minutes. Once cooked and cooled, remove the leaves one by one, eating the fleshy bases dipped in melted butter or vinaigrette. Then remove the inedible fuzzy choke (so called because this is exactly what would happen if you tried to eat it) to reveal the succulent base of the flower, known as the heart and dig in.