Tag Archive for: Cardoons

Edible thistles? What a faff. I’m happy to be served globe artichokes in a restaurant. Especially when given the Carciofi alla Romana treatment, a spring speciality of the Roman capital, where they are stuffed with a mixture of garlic, parsley and mint, then braised in olive oil and white wine. Delightful. especially since all the fiddly preparation, especially choke removal, has been done by someone else. And I, with my negligible knife skills, have not nearly chopped a finger off. 

There is another thistle that’s not half the hassle, except with the sourcing. The Cardoon is quite a looker with Its thorny, silver-grey leaves and pompom-like purple blossoms, standing up to six feet tall. Alas, you won’t find this cousin of the artichoke any time soon on a supermarket veg counter or even from a specialist UK greengrocer. 

The cooked stalks may have been a treat on a plate for 17th century diarists such as Pepys and Evelyn (the latter a gardening expert who grew his own) but Cynara cardunculus has fallen from grace on these shores, compared with the Med, where the green lunghi variety still thrives. Italy’s Piemonte region is ‘cardone centrale’. Growers there cultivate the ‘Gobbi’ (Italian for hunchback), where the plant is bent over and covered in soil. thus protecting it from the light and creating a paler, tenderer stalk. Think forced rhubarb.The Italians dip them with other crudités in the addictive, garlicky sauce, bagna cauda. The heads are also gathered to make a vegetarian rennet for certain types of cheese.

In Britain the more accessible celery gradually took overt the cardoon’s mantle. Still in certain heritage gardens you may chance upon it in season (November-February), which happened to me at a certain Cheshire property I was a guest at. I took a sample home, sans thistle heads,  with the intention of testing their toothsome mettle in a cheesy gratin. Alas, the stalks (the part you eat, not the thistle as with artichokes) were at the end of their tether, so I chucked them.

The big plan now is to grow my own and I‘ve got the perfect source – Otter Farm in Devon. I‘m a devotee of its creator, Mark Diacono, once of River Cottage. He’s both a brilliant author (Sour and Spice are stand-outs; he’s currently publishing follow-up Abundance in instalments via his substack The Imperfect Umbrella) and a grower of rare and wonderful plants at his 17 acre farm. They sell the cardoon in seed or pot form; whatever, I’ve got a substantial wait while they swell in our raised beds.

What should I expect? Let me take the Otter Farm advice: “Cardoons look very similar to globe artichokes – they can get to at least 2m tall with their downy green-grey leaves and amazing flower heads. Both inner and outer stems are edible,  though oddly the inner are more bitter. Take a potato peeler to the ribs to remove stringy bits and blanch before using as the main ingredient to a gratin or as a crudité vegetable.

“Sow seed in March or April under cover and plant out after frosts have passed leaving 80cm (annual) and over 100cm (perennial) between. Then on a dry day in early autumn gather together the leaves and tie then up with string (including the stake if you have one) into a bundle. Then wrap a collar of card or thick newspaper around your cardoon bundle and leave it for around four weeks to blanch. 

“Lift plants as required from October. They’ll be happy like this until any hard frosts and will store in a cool place until December, if you do need to lift them all before the cold sets in. Tolerant of poor soils and grows well in shade, but happiest in full sun (the former is more likely at ours).”

Speaking of shade, or more specifically ‘chiaroscuro’, Caravaggio, arguably Rome’s greatest artistic son, paid his own homage by including cardoons in his Still Life with Flowers and Fruit. The veg is more centre stage in Still Life with Francolin by Spanish food still life specialist Juan Sanchez Cotan and The Prado’s Still Life with Cardoon, Francolin, Grapes and Irises by the virtually unknown Felipe Ramírez.

All these images are of cardoons au naturel, but cooked, what recipe shows this bitter veg off at its best? Step forward Jennifer McLaglan, who has penned the definitive account of “A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavour” – Bitter (Jacqui Small, £25). The Canadian-based author devotes an entire chapter to the cardoon in the ‘Surprisingly Bitter’ section (chocolate and tobacco star in ‘Dark, Forbidden and Very Bitter’).

She’s an advocate of its valuable health properties: “Like other bitter plants, thistles support the liver, gallbladder, spleen and kIdneys, and aid digestion. They contain good amounts of folic acid and  minerals, notably copper, manganese, magnesium and iron.”

The taste, she describes as having, through the bitterness, “an earthy, meatiness and mild artichoke-and-mushroominess that will seduce you.” 

This, I‘m sure is shown to great effect in creamy gratins where the blanched stalks are enhanced by ample amounts of cheese. As with celery, whose leaves are also surprisingly bitter, the outer, more fibrous cardoon stalks will in tandem with dried porcini and garlic, make a fine, if rather beige, soup. Hardcore fans will lap it up in bitter leaf salads or braised greens.

I’ll get back to you on all this when I’ve sowed my own Cynara cardunculus seeds this spring and harvested them in late autumn.