March 16 is National Artichoke Hearts Day! The origin of these deliciously creamy and rich flavored vegetables is an interesting journey around the Mediterranean to the modern world.
But first of all let’s set the record straight. Artichokes are not technically a vegetable. They are a flower and if left to fully mature will burst out into a beautiful deep purple bloom which is actually a cluster of many tiny little flowers. But as beautiful as these are, most of us will want to cut them long before they become a flower arrangement. The delectable flesh that adorns the outer leaves (really they are not leaves but are called “bracts”) and the bulbous heart give us culinary pleasure rather than visual pleasure. Cooking and eating them will deny us the pleasure of seeing them in their full glory. But the trade off is worth it.
Artichokes grew wild around the Mediterranean Sea for centuries before people discovered they offered nutritional value. The first mention of them was in the writings of Homer in the 8th Century B.C. but only as a garden plant. There was no evidence of them being eaten. But later in the Greek world there are mentions of the wild versions being used as food. In Greek mythology the artichoke was created by Zeus when he became angry with the young goddess, Cynara, and threw her back to earth as punishment. When she landed the artichoke was born.
Aristotle also talked of them but strangely he called them “kaktos” or cactus. It was from this Greek word for artichokes that we get the word for all of those prickly and spiny plants that inhabit desert climes. And indeed the artichoke does have some cactus-like features and is considered a thistle. An 18th Century botanist caused the confusion, but that is another story that doesn’t belong here. The current word we use derives from an Arabic word “al-karsufa.” This word got distorted by the Spanish to “alcarchofa” and then finally by the Italians who called them “articiocco.” From there it is easy to see where the English word “artichoke” came from. So much for easy translations in the ancient world.
In that ancient world, there was a long-held belief that artichokes were an aphrodisiac. That legend continued down through the Renaissance and into the 1700’s across Europe. In fact, women were prevented from eating them for centuries. Catherine de Medici, the famous Italian noblewoman who became queen of France was the first to bring the plant to France. She loved them and also believed in their libido powers. She was quoted as saying, “If one of us had eaten artichokes, we would have been pointed out on the street. Today young women are more forward than pages at the court.”
An Italian doctor and writer from Catherine’s time also promoted the idea. Dr. Bartolomeo Boldo wrote in the “Book of Nature” that the artichoke “has the virtue of … provoking Venus for both men and women; for women making them more desirable, and helping the men who are in these matters rather tardy.” And street vendors selling vegetables in Paris during the 1700’s used the belief to sell more of them. They would cry out “Artichokes! Artichokes! Heats the body and the spirit. Heats the genitals!” Shocking yes, but no worse than the erectile dysfunction commercials which dominate television screens today.
Foods as aphrodisiacs have always been controversial and lack significant proof, but artichokes are packed with antioxidants and these are known to boost blood flow among many other healthy functions. So maybe there is something to it. One thing is for sure, it is one of the most romantic vegetables to eat. There is something about the slow, seductive sharing of one, tearing off the leaves and dipping into a nice sauce that makes a romantic meal special. The California Artichoke Advisory Board which promotes them knew something about sex appeal when they crowned a young model named Norma Jean Mortensen as their very first “Artichoke Queen.” Most of you have already figured out how famous that “Norma Jean” became. Yes, she would later be known as Marilyn Monroe.
There are over 140 varieties of artichokes, but the most popular is the “Globe” variety. Spain and Italy grow the vast majority of the world’s supply and California grows almost all of those available in the United States. The plants are perennials and can produce for up to ten years. Each plant will produce about 20 artichokes each year. Baby artichokes come from the same plants as the larger versions but are harvested from the bottom of the plant where lack of sunlight stunts their growth.
So on National Artichoke Heart day take your significant other out to enjoy a romantic dinner with a beautiful and delicious artichoke as the highlight. We are confident the evening will be one to remember.