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Artichokes transformed

Italians know how to make this vegetable's leaves velvety and tender.

By Rebecca Helm-RopelatoContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2008

Rebecca Helm-Ropelato

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Ladispoli, Italy

Until recently, artichokes as a vegetable had been a great disappointment to me. Excellent as art object or table centerpiece, passable as a paper punch, but as edibles they fell short.

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Then I arrived in Italy – a country where the average cook could make tree bark taste agreeable; imagine what they can do with the artichoke. By the time it arrives on your plate here, virtually the entire bulb is melt-on-your-tongue velvety and irresistibly flavorful. An alternative recipe creates a more crunchy leaf, but you can eat the entire leaf without any convulsive jiggering of the mandible.

By the time we set out for la sagra del carciofo romanesco (festival of the Roman artichoke) in Ladispoli one Saturday morning last year, my attitude toward this spike-edged vegetable had been transformed.

Ladispoli is a seaside town about a half-hour drive northwest from Rome. By reputation, and owing to the nutrient-rich volcanic soil of the area, the local artichokes are among the best in Italy. Ladispoli's annual artichoke festival, held for three days in April since 1950, is hugely popular, attracting tens of thousands of people each year.

When we arrived, the first thing I did was search for an artichoke grower. I spotted one immediately. Tall and straight-backed, deeply tanned from long workdays in the sun, Arduino Moretti stood serenely at the front of his small booth next to stacked wooden crates overflowing with artichokes.

Originally from the central Italian region of Marche, Mr. Moretti moved to Ladispoli in the 1960s to grow artichokes. Today, he, the four members of his family, and one hired worker produce about 50,000 of the green and purple delicacies each year.

The Mediterranean artichoke season runs from December to April. Artichokes are relatively simple to cultivate, according to Moretti, but cold is their biggest enemy. Only a few degrees drop in temperature and a crop can be ruined. Last year's weather was so mild, they began gathering artichokes around Christmastime, Moretti said.

The vegetable, in fact, is the bud of a flower of a perennial thistle bush. Each plant produces many buds and, when mature, must be picked by hand. (Moretti's large hands are an exhibit themselves: lined, calloused, and stained from handling the artichoke's tough, iron-rich, purplish petals.)

The earliest artichoke buds on the bush are most prized. They are extraordinarily flavorful and tender. The plants continue to sprout new buds over the remaining season, but their size diminishes with each picking.

Next we wandered toward the food court, where workers under two large tents were cooking deep-fried artichokes on demand for a steady flow of customers drawn by the delicious aroma. In an adjacent booth, men roasted artichokes in a covered grill. This southern Italian method uses a seasoning of olive oil and mint leaves, which causes the artichoke to become succulently tender with a smoked flavor. Artichokes can also be buried in the hot ashes of an open fire and cooked slowly for a couple hours.

We ended the day with a must-see festival program: "Cooking It Well: All the ways to clean, cook, and decorate il carciofo romanesco."