Artichokes are top of the June crops
With the artichoke season now upon us, The Connexion meets a flag-waver for the Breton delicacy with a fine reputation
Artichokes are at their best in May and June. In France they are regarded as a delicacy and are very popular, unlike in the UK where they are seldom eaten and very few are grown commercially.
France is the third biggest producer in Europe behind Italy in first place and Spain second.
There are 900 producers in Brittany and many are in Finistère just south of Roscoff around Saint-Pol-de-Léon, where there is a favourable micro-climate: “We have a mild climate with very few frosts, which suits artichokes which were originally a Mediterranean crop,” says Jean-François Jézéquel, spokesman for the Confrérie de l’Artichaut de Bretagne.
“This area is particularly good for vegetables. We grow mostly cauliflowers, but artichokes are the second crop. The soil is rich in humus and minerals as it was once under the sea and it is very deep, which suits the artichokes’ long roots. Another positive aspect is the warm sea breeze which literally blows away any aphids and there is hardly any need for treatment against pests.
“It is a very big plant, reaching up to 1m70 and requires a lot of feeding and it is up to the farmer to decide whether this is mostly organic and to what extent he uses synthetic products.”
The origin of the artichoke we know today is a wild thistle which grew in Italy and in the Mediterranean.
It was probably first developed by gardeners in Florence in the fifteenth century after a few plants were brought to the city in 1466 from Naples. In less than a hundred years it spread throughout Europe.
In the 16th century Catherine de’ Medici brought it to France from Italy and insisted on having artichokes at all her banquets.
Henri III of France said it was one of his two favourite vegetables, the other being asparagus. It was also reputed to be an aphrodisiac and venison with artichokes was the favourite dish that Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry liked to serve her King.
The part we eat is the flower bud, and must be picked before it develops its thistle like blue- to purple-coloured flower.
Each stem carries a main bud at its tip and two to three others on side shoots. The first to develop is the top bud, which is picked in May. The others are picked later in June. There is a second crop in the autumn.
“Each artichoke is picked by hand”, says Mr Jézéquel. “There is a real skill to knowing just the right moment, and the farmer goes through the fields about twice a week and only takes those which are ready. It is best not to eat them fresh from the field, as they become easier to digest after a few days. So do not worry if they look a little faded in the shop, they will still be good.”
Unlike most vegetable crops the plant is a perennial and Mr Jézéquel says that as a commercial crop they are left in the field for three years : “A home gardener can keep them up to eight years, but for us they become uneconomic if we leave them too long.”
Artichokes need a great deal of care. One hectare of artichokes requires 250 hours of manpower compared to eight for a hectare of wheat.
“At the end of the season we cut the stem down to the ground and leave the root,” says Mr Jézéquel. “They re-shoot in March. Each plant needs a space of about a square metre. The ground needs weeding, earth building round the base of the stem, we need to add plenty of fertiliser and finally cutting by hand takes time and manpower.”
Three varieties of big artichoke are grown in Brittany.
Camus is the oldest and best known variety, Castel is paler green, and has a good sized heart and Cardinal is a new variety, which is purple, keeps well and is reputed for its sweet and mild taste. Another recent crop is the Petit Violet, which is much smaller and can even be eaten raw.
Artichokes are known for their subtle, flavour and are rich in fibre, potassium and vitamins B9 (folic acid) and C. They are also known for being fiddly to prepare and to eat as you seem to throw away as much as you eat and work hard to be rewarded with the creamy delicate flesh.
Pierre Gelebart is responsible for marketing the artichoke at Prince de Bretagne, which promotes North Brittany fruit and vegetables for local producers.
He says there are several ways of preparing artichokes and not just the way he remembers his mother and grandmother cooking them for him when he was a child: “We realise that people have less time now and can’t always wait 20 minutes for just one or two artichokes to cook in the pressure cooker, or a bit longer, around 30 minutes in boiling water.
“However, it only takes between eight and 10 minutes in the microwave, either covered in film, or in a bowl with a lid.
“The smaller variety, the Petit Violet is quicker to prepare. One of my favourite methods is to take off the toughest bracts, cut it into four slices from top to bottom and cook it a la plancha (grilled) maybe with some tomatoes and peppers, a little oil and seasoning.”
He says it is very difficult to describe the taste. “It has a unique flavour. Subtle, but pronounced and definitely tasty. It is sweet rather than bitter. Very good.”
Here are his tips for its preparation: “You need to break the stem off at the base of the artichoke, rather than cut it with a knife, because then you can remove the tough fibres running into the heart. Wash under running water because it comes from the fields, and as we like to explain, we cannot prevent the birds from flying over them.
“If you just want to use the heart in a recipe, the best way is to cook the artichoke first so you can easily peel off the bracts and remove the choke. You can do this from raw, but you really need to be a practised chef, to do this easily. Add lemon juice to the cooking water to make it easier to digest and once cooked, artichokes are best eaten within 24 hours.”
RECIPE: ARTICHOKE CAVIAR WITH PIMENT D’ESPELETTE
- 4 big artichokes (Camus/Castel or Cardinal)
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- Piment d’Espelette
- salt, pepper
- Cook the artichokes in boiling water, in a pressure cooker or in the microwave.
- Take off the bracts, scoop off the choke, the inedible part above the heart, and cream the hearts in a blender. Add the lemon juice and then the olive oil.
- Add the Piment d’Espelette and season to taste. You can also add parmesan. Put in the fridge to chill before serving.
For more artichoke recipes, visit www.princedebretagne.com