Artichoke, Globe

2 October 2012

"A perennial vegetable related to the thistle...reputed to be an aphrodisiac, and women were forbidden to eat it"
 The 'Globe' part of the title is important: back when we were running the cafĂ©, we used to regularly make soup from the unrelated but weirdly similar-tasting Jerusalem artichokes. One morning, when neither of us was in, the supplier sent globes instead - and the person in charge of making the soup that day, having never seen a globe artichoke before, went ahead and threw it in the pot. She did of course have some misgivings about it, and thankfully kept it back for us to taste. The result, somehow, looked and even tasted right, and felt perfectly smooth in the mouth - but after swallowing a couple of spoonfuls, a tickle in the back of the throat gave way to a scratchy sensation, becoming more and more intense until it felt like a mouthful of splinters.

The 'choke' lurking inside looks fuzzy, rather than spiny, but if you've ever eaten some accidentally, you'll know the feeling I mean. Left undisturbed, this is the part that goes on to form the artichoke's beautiful flower.* In smaller, younger artichokes, Larousse says, the choke isn't fully formed and doesn't need to be removed. I've only ever seen the familiar large green type on sale, but Larousse has pictures of several different-sized cultivars, with leaves shot through with violet, and bulging or delicately elongated buds.

In search of one of these less-known breeds, we get on the Clipper (one of the privileges of living all the way out in Woolwich) and head up the Thames to Maltby Street. Here, under the railway arches near the site of the original market, is Tayshaw - a wonderful greengrocer, only open to the public on Saturday mornings. It's not such a well-kept secret as when we first discovered it - in fact, we end up queueing for rather a long time - but still well worth a visit if you find yourself in need of exotic fruit or mystery vegetables.

Sure enough, even though it's the end of the season, they have two varieties on sale: alongside the usual green Italian artichokes are two boxes of these 'Petit Violet' from France - much smaller than their cousins and rather egg-shaped, with a rich purple blush at the base of their leaves.

Since we've come all this way, we also pay a visit to St John for a custard doughnut, La Grotta for nearly-as-good-as-my-mum's damson and fig ice creams, and The Kernel for some of the best beer in the city, picking up a few bits and pieces of cheese and cured meat on the way.

They were as good as they look. But the caramel doughnuts at the St John Hotel are better yet.

Back home, I tackle the Violets. Normally, with a large artichoke, I'd just steam or boil it whole, then pluck off the leaves to nibble at with vinaigrette or hollandaise. Since Larousse says the leaves of smaller artichokes can be eaten whole, I want to try something different. So as instructed, I trim off the stalks and the outer, tougher leaves, cut them into quarters and scrape out the tiny choke with the tip of a knife, then snip the top third of the leaves off before throwing them into acidulated water to stop them blackening.

I briefly boil them, while some finely chopped shallots soften gently in butter, then turn up the heat and sautĂ© all together until they start to brown. A spoonful of flour to make a roux, then a splash of white wine and some stock, and finally a squeeze of lemon juice, make a glossy, sharp sauce, that I think should pair beautifully with the sweet earthiness of artichoke.

Sadly the artichokes themselves are a bit of a let down - whether because they're past their best, or perhaps something I did - a little bitter, but without much flavour otherwise, and some of the leaves are still stringy and tough. The sauce at least is delicious, and I end up drinking it straight from the bowl.

Luckily, I also brought home a large, green globe, so I have another chance at glory. I'll tell you all about it next time.

*Botany nerds: I know, they are florets, not a flower. And the 'leaves' are actually bracts. Etc. 

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