Dining in artichoke land: Eat your heart out

On a weekday morning in the sleepy California town of Pescadero, Duarte's Tavern is the only place with any sign of life. The brown-shingled restaurant is unassuming, but the food coming out of its kitchen draws a crowd.

The house specialty, a creamy artichoke soup, is so popular that when a customer asks a cheerful, strawberry-blond waitress about the recipe, the waitress walks over to a framed document on the pine-paneled wall, unhooks it, and plunks it down on the counter along with pen and paper.

"At first we didn't want to give the recipe away," she says with a shrug, "but then we figured people might make it once or twice at home, but mostly they'll just come back here for more."

And come back they do. Of the nearly 80 gallons of artichoke soup made per week at Duarte's Tavern, almost every spoonful is slurped up by eager customers. "We like to save some for ourselves," says Tim Duarte, son of the owner.

Other popular dishes served here are Steamed Artichokes Stuffed with Fennel Sausage, and breakfast omelets with artichoke.

As I jot down the list of ingredients between spoonfuls of soup and bites of warm, crusty bread, owner Ron Duarte steps out of the kitchen to chat. His grandfather opened the restaurant in 1894, he explains, but it wasn't until the late 1950s that they started serving the now-famous soup.

He and his wife, Lynn, tasted an artichoke soup with oysters in New Orleans. Smitten, they later developed their own version - without oysters, back home.

Of course, the Duartes were fortunate that back home was - and still is - artichoke country. California grows 100 percent of America's artichokes, and most of them are cultivated along the state's central coast, south of San Francisco.

Although the majority of the world's artichokes are grown in sunny France, Italy, Spain, and Greece, farmers along the central California coast like to brag that their heavy fog, cool winters, and mild summers are better suited to raising this member of the thistle family.

South of Duarte's Tavern is the town of Castroville, home to three-fourths of California's artichoke acreage. The self-proclaimed Artichoke Center of the World, 16 miles north of Monterey, honors its favorite vegetable with an annual festival in May.

Castroville growers formed the California Artichoke Advisory Board and developed a Web site that features everything from farming techniques to proper eating etiquette, or "artiquette."

Mr. Duarte doesn't have to trek to Castroville for his artichokes. He grows them out back. "Take a look at my garden behind the kitchen," he says, adding: "You may want to leave the camera here. I haven't had time to weed lately."

Then the affable restaurateur moves on to chat with a table of regulars. They instantly welcome him to their conversation as though he were an old friend. Clearly, it's not just the soup that keeps Duarte's Tavern hopping in the otherwise quiet village of Pescadero.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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