Dear Readers, there can’t be many late-summer plants that attract as many insects as the cardoon, a massive Mediterranean thistle that is suddenly very popular in bee-friendly flowerbeds. You might know it as the globe artichoke, and you would be right: the cultivated variety of the plant, Cynar cardunculus var scolymus, has been systematically bred for larger, juicier flowerbuds, while the cardoon was grown more for its edible stems. There are now many decorative varieties of the plant , and with its architectural grey foliage and fist-sized flowers there are few more imposing things to stick at the back of the border.
The cardoon has a long and illustrious history as an edible plant. It was mentioned by the Greek writer Theophrastus who lived during the fourth century BCE. It was also popular with the Romans and the Persians, and was eaten in many places in medieval and early modern Europe. It was taken to North America by settlers during the colonial era, and can also be found in Argentina and Australia (it is considered an invasive weed in both countries). However, it fell out of favour throughout most of its range and by the twentieth century it had become rare, except in a few regions.
In North Africa the leaves and stems are often added to couscous, but it really comes into its own in Lyonnaise cuisine, and in the recipes of Navarre and Aragon in Spain. Only the tenderest, innermost leaves are considered edible, and these are traditionally blanched by being surrounded by earth to keep the light out. This reminds me somewhat of the ‘forced rhubarb’ of Yorkshire, though here the plants are grown in sheds in the dark to achieve the same ends. Sadly, the blanching is now more often achieved by wrapping the plant in black plastic.
Some people do eat the buds, in the same way that you might eat baby globe artichokes, but when I look at the wild plant this seems like a daunting prospect. The stems of the cardoon are also covered in small painful spikes, which need to be removed, although some commercial varieties have been bred without them.
The buds can, however, be used for cheesemaking, as can the pistils of the flower: they contain a kind of vegetable rennet which helps to coagulate the milk. Both Spanish and Portuguese cheesemakers use cardoon for this purpose.
The cardoon is also an ingredient of the Spanish national dish Cocido madrileño, a substantial dish made with chickpeas, meat (usually pork) and vegetables. Traditionally, this is eaten in three parts: first the stock, with some noodles added, then the vegetables and pulses, and then the meat. The dish was originally called adafina, and was a staple of the Sephardic Jewish community, without the pork but with eggs. It was valuable because it was cooked very slowly, and therefore didn’t need to be attended to during Shabbat. Sadly, the growth in anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jewish population during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries led to the dish incorporating pork, as a way for Christians and converted Jews to prove that they weren’t Jewish. The history of cuisine is so often a history of the peoples who originated it.In New Orleans, the stems are traditionally served battered and fried on the altars on the Feast of St Joseph (19th March).
Of course, I couldn’t leave the subject of the culinary uses of cardoon without mentioning the alcoholic beverages that it is associated with. The Italian liqueur Amaro uses cardoon as a principle ingredient, but if you really want an artichoke hit, there is a drink that I saw being quaffed in Venice: cynar spritz. The cynar is made with globe artichoke rather than cardoon, but it seems to appeal to the Venetians, who have a taste for the bitter rather than the sweet. Maybe it’s all those blessed tourists and cruise ships that tend them towards the darker side of life. At any rate, on any sunny evening you will see Venetian matriarchs of all ages knocking this back (along with bright orange Aperol spritz, which always reminds me of Lucozade, at least in colour) and discussing the abominations of the age, and who can blame them?
Cardoon has also come to the attention of the biofuel industry, and in Sardinia, the site of an old petrochemical factory is being turned into a biorefinery which which will take the oil from the thistle seeds and turn it into bioplastics. It is planned to use the rest of the plant too: the biomass can be turned into high-protein flour and animal feed, and during the flowering season it’s hoped to create cardoon honey. As you can see from the photos, there is no shortage of bees waiting to take advantage of those enormous flowerheads.
In my ever-helpful ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas, Cynara species are described as some of the most useful plants for the August to November season, just when the queen bumblebees are fattening up and the honeybees are gathering in their stores for the winter. However, he does mention that, as it can grow to 2.5 metres tall and have a spread of the same dimensions, it probably needs a large garden. Like most Mediterranean plants, it loves full sun and a well-drained soil. I fear that I am going to have to admire it in other people’s gardens for the time being. I have tried to grow it in mine, but it languished droopily and finally succumbed.
So, what impact has the cardoon had on the arts? I was delighted to find this still life by Spanish painter Felipe Ramirez from 1628, which is currently in the Prado in Madrid. Note the blanched stems of the cardoon, looking for all the world like celery after it has been in the fridge for a little too long. The francolin is a kind of quail. We know absolutely nothing else about Snr Ramirez, but this painting lives on. I love the way that he has captured the bloom on the grapes, and the blemishes on the cardoon.
There is, however, speculation that Ramirez was a student of the master of Spanish still life painting (known as ‘bodegones’, meaning, ‘from the bodega (a storeroom or tavern), Juan Sánchez Cotán. He was working in Toledo in the seventeenth century, and raised ordinary everyday things, such as fruit and vegetables, to the status of objects to be artistically appreciated. This appeals to my own sensibility – everything is worth paying attention to, and I know that when I was taking a drawing class, I fell in love with everything that I turned my charcoal to, particularly the imperfections that made a carrot or an apple or a bottle individual and unique.
And finally, a poem. I have been so busy thinking about bees that I forgot that goldfinches love thistle seeds of all kinds, and the cardoon must provide a bumper crop. Here is a poem from the London Magazine by Peter Anderson. I love the sense of the morning after the night before amidst the ruins of Rome.
Dawn on the Palatine:
planets bow out, stars pick their way
through rat-traps and incident tape.
The morning after the party of all time.
The sun loves me like a cat
wanting my sleep. I am trying to sleep
in the lee of a wall in the wilderness
backyard of an emperor.
There is a lyric of ruins. It is a song
sung in that dream of eating your own teeth.
Red brick turns its flank to the sun.
BAX BUNNY tattooed there.
Scudding across tufa and tramlines
glittering like straights
goes just the one scooter.
This letter comes by goldfinch,
the first I ever saw,
blooding its face on the Palatine
at dawn, terrible
as a princeps, pontifex, come
down into gardens of citrus and cypress
in the first heat of the day.
A blood god busy in the cardoons.
Photo One by By Lusitana – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2160162
Photo Two by By MollySVH – Torta de Casar cheeseUploaded by Diádoco, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9917414
Photo Three by By Adriao – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6635351
Photo Four by By Tnarik – Flicr , CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2547841
Photo Five by Christopher Scafidi.Original uploader was ChrisQuint at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : Christopher Scafidi), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8916438
Photo Six by Trekkiedane – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57028294