Artichokes, like eggplant and escargot, are one of those foods that people either love or hate, and it has been that way for over three thousand years. Homer wrote about the artichoke around 800 BC, and there is evidence that it was consumed even earlier by the Egyptians and in some other parts of Northern Africa.
Although naturally occurring in the wild throughout the Mediterranean region, some evidence suggests that it was the ancient Greeks who first began actively cultivating and improving the artichoke, taking it from its wild form to something close to what we have today. From Greece, the artichoke slowly made its way throughout Europe and was introduced to the New World by immigrants in the mid-18th century.
Today, over one and a half million tons of artichokes are commercially grown each year, with Italy accounting for almost a third of the worldwide production and growing just short of 500 thousand tons annually. Other major artichoke producers include Egypt, Spain, parts of South America (particularly Peru and Argentina), France and the United States – where its commercial production occurs almost exclusively in California, about 80% of which is done in Monterey County.
There are two major types of artichoke (although there are well over 1000 different cultivars, and more being produced every year): the round (or globe) and the elongated artichoke. Very similar in taste and texture, the round artichoke is the one you will see most frequently at the supermarket.
At its most basic, the artichoke plant is a type of naturally occurring thistle that adapts well to cultivation and manipulation. The part that is eaten is the bud of the flower before it has bloomed; after the bud has bloomed, it is virtually inedible. The upper part of the leaves surrounding the bud will usually have ‘thorns’ that will need to be trimmed before eating. The interior of the bud where it attaches to the stem is often referred to as the ‘heart’ and is usually surrounded by hair-like fibers called the ‘choke’, which must be removed before eating.
Artichokes, whatever you might think of their looks and taste, are actually quite good for you and have one of the highest levels of antioxidants of any vegetable. An excellent source of dietary fiber, they are also packed with magnesium, phosphorous, and sodium, and are a good source of many of the B vitamins as well as vitamins C and K.
Along with their use as a vegetable accompaniment to meals or as a ‘stuffed’ appetizer or entrée, artichokes are often used in soups and stews, as a topping for pizza, or as an addition to other meat-based or vegetarian dishes. The leaves surrounding the heart are often eaten raw after being dipped in olive oil or vinegar and are frequently used in salads. Artichokes are often used in making dips. They are also sometimes used in making herbal tea and are a main ingredient in the Italian specialty liqueur Cynar.
The vast majority of artichoke plants thrive in warm climates with mild winters and are only commercially cultivated in these areas. In the last few decades, however, cultivars have been developed that can withstand colder temperatures, and artichoke plants have been growing in popularity in recent years with home gardeners throughout the United States and Canada.
So, what are a few of the more popular types of artichokes?
The Green Globe (Cynara cardunculus) is the most commonly commercially cultivated artichoke in the world and is most likely what you will find in the produce section at your local supermarket. Sometimes referred to as a ‘true’ or ‘original’ artichoke, this is considered to be the first plant developed (or ‘improved’) from the artichokes cultivated by the ancient Greeks and remains by far the most popular and widely consumed artichoke on the market today. Very adaptable to specific breeding techniques, many cultivars of the artichoke are descended from the Green Globe. They are most commonly grown in Italy, France, and California.
Known for its (not surprisingly) green leaves, the Green Globe produces one of the larger edible buds in the artichoke family – often over 5 inches – and can weigh up to about a pound. The large leaves are excellent for use in salads and are often steamed or boiled, while the large, meaty heart has a unique, slightly bitter flavor that stands up well when served with spicy, flavorful dishes.
Primarily because of its size and durability, this variety is the one most often used for stuffed artichoke dishes. In these dishes, the top of the artichoke is cut off, and the leaves are pulled away (but not detached) from the heart. The stuffing ingredients (usually breadcrumbs, oil, and parmesan or Romano cheese) are gently pressed between the leaves, after which the artichoke is baked. In some cultures, artichokes are also stuffed with ground or chopped meats, most often lamb.
Purple Italian Globe
Another primarily Italian variety, the Purple Italian Globe artichoke grows almost as large as the Green Globe and is characterized by its rich purple outer leaves. Less bitter than the Green Globe, this artichoke tends to produce a more tender heart when prepared properly, while the leaves have a delicious tang to them and are often used to bring color to salads. Prepared and utilized in much the same way as the Green Globe, the purple color of the leaves will fade when they are cooked or steamed.
The Purple Italian Globe is a hardier and somewhat more adaptable plant than many of its artichoke brethren and stands up quite well to moderate and slightly colder climates. This hardiness – and the beautiful purple buds it produces – makes it very popular with home growers and vegetable gardeners throughout the United States and the lower parts of Canada.
The Carciofo Romanesco (often called the Artichoke of Rome, or the mammola) is another native of Italy, mostly grown in the sandy soil in and around the Lazio region just outside of Rome, where it has been cultivated since the mid-3rd century. Not being a particularly adaptable type of artichoke, the Carciofo Romanesco is not widely commercially grown outside of its native region, although in recent years it has become popular with home vegetable gardeners.
Another quite large member of the Globe family, the Carciofo Romanesco has deep purple exterior leaves with a greenish tinge and a slightly pungent, grass-like odor prior to cooking. Unlike most artichokes, this variety has no thorns and is quite tender with a large heart that has a robust, slightly nutty flavor.
Not surprisingly, the Baby Anzio is one of the smallest artichokes you are likely to encounter. Normally measuring around 2 inches in circumference, it is a close relative of the Carciofo Romanesco and is cultivated in Italy, Southern France, and California. The Baby Anzio artichoke is picked early in its development before it has fully ripened, which is when it is at its most flavorful.
The Baby Anzio is normally purple when it is picked. This artichoke has a nutty, sweet taste reminiscent of caramel, and is often served to enhance the flavor of sweeter main courses. Most often served as a side dish after being braised or grilled – often with butter, garlic, or olive oil – the Baby Anzio has a very little choke, making it one of the easier artichokes to work with in the kitchen.
From one of the smallest to one of the largest, the Omaha is one of the newer types of artichokes to make its way into the cuisines of countries outside of Europe, although it has been around for hundreds of years. Often growing to over 6 inches in diameter, the Omaha is a globe artichoke that was once only cultivated in Italy, France, and parts of Greece; in the last several decades, however, it has migrated to California and some parts of South America.
The Omaha is a large, relatively sturdy artichoke with light purple and green leaves. Less bitter tasting than some other artichokes, it is quite meaty and has a buttery, nutty and slightly sweet flavor. They are often stuffed and grilled, or served as an accompaniment to spicier dishes.
The Imperial Star is a hybrid of the Green Globe from California and is among the most popular artichoke varieties with home growers – for whom it was developed. Quite adaptable particularly in warmer and moderate parts of the United States as far as climate is concerned, the Imperial Star plant produces buds that are usually around 3 to 4 inches in diameter, and are almost thorn-free. The leaves of the bud are predominantly green with purple accents and stay closed longer after ripening, which allows for longer harvest time. This artichoke is quite similar in flavor to the Green Globe, although it will usually tend to be a bit sweeter.
Another fairly recent addition to the family of California hybrid artichokes, the Sangria was developed at Baroda Farms in Lompoc, California in partnership with the Italian government and introduced to the world in 2013. Also called the Purple Sangria, this is a globe artichoke that will normally be between 3 and 4 inches in diameter. As the name indicates, the leaves are a deep purple and quite meaty, while the heart has a nutty, earthy flavor. A proprietary plant, these artichokes are rarely seen outside of the Western United States.
The Lyon artichoke (also called the Gros Vert de Laon which translates to the Big Green of Lyon) is a native of the area surrounding (not surprisingly) the city of Lyon in France and is still widely cultivated there, as well as in California. The largest of all commercially cultivated artichokes, the Lyon will often weigh well over a pound, and reach circumferences of over 6 inches. A globe variety, the Lyon has tightly packed green leaves, and the largest heart in the artichoke family. Their flavor is nutty, buttery and slightly sweet. Given their size, they are often used for stuffed artichoke dishes and the large leaves are also often used in heartier types of salads.
Fiesole (also commonly called baby purple) artichokes are another ‘baby’ variety that originated near the town of Fiesole, located in the hills surrounding Florence, in the Tuscany region of Italy, and is also widely cultivated today in California. Normally picked before they are fully ripe, the Fiesole will usually be around 2 inches in circumference and feature brightly colored purple leaves. The Fiesole will generally have little to no choke, and a very robust nutty/fruity flavor that stands up well to spicier dishes and more intense sauces.
A native of Northern Italy and once referred to as ‘the artichoke of the aristocrat’, the Violetta is an elongated type of artichoke that will usually be about 5 inches long and 3 inches in circumference. Still widely grown in Italy and France, the Violetta is also commercially cultivated in California and has recently begun to increase in popularity with home gardeners. This artichoke will normally have thick purple leaves sometimes tinged with green; the heart has a rich buttery, nutty flavor. As the Violetta does not lend itself well to stuffing due to its elongated shape, this artichoke is usually served as side-dish or served in salads or with dips.
One of the least aptly named vegetables you are ever likely to run across, the Jerusalem artichoke is not a native of the Middle East, has nothing to do with either the ancient or modern city of Jerusalem, and isn’t even an artichoke! Rather, it is a type of sunflower that is native to North America and produces an edible tuber not unlike a potato, although with a nuttier and sweeter taste. Cultivated by Native Americans for centuries prior to the arrival of European settlers, the Jerusalem artichoke is cultivated today in many parts of the United States and Central Europe and is used in soups, salads, and as an alternative to potatoes as a side dish. They are widely used in the production of animal feed, and are also sometimes used in the manufacture of certain alcoholic beverages, including some types of German brandy.