Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

The Artistry of Artichokes

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Have you ever wondered what an artichoke would look like if left to mature on the bush? They’re gorgeous, especially an entire field of them. The artichoke is a giant thistle and it flowers a typical purple. Their peak harvest time is in May and by the end of summer the ones not picked are boldly blooming.

I recently went to coastal Davenport CA and wandered through acres of cultivated artichokes at the ocean’s edge. The abandoned and forgotten plants were given a reprieve this year from the dinner table. The stems stood 3 to 6 feet high, their long leaves limp and withered by their sides, rattling like corn stalks in winter. Most blooms were at eye level, so we met face to face. The persistent onshore winds kept the blossoms bobbing, the big heads leaning into rows as if looking to see who was coming.

Only a very few were still green and edible; if I’d brought a knife and a pack, I might have harvested them. But most were long past providing food, the soft green sepals having given way to brittle browns, purples, reds, and golds. In some, the purple hairs of the thistle flower were just peeking out, while others showed fully coiffed crowns. Some were only fist sized while others were almost as large as a human head sporting purple crew cut. Bees were everywhere, diving headlong into the purple strands, frantically collecting their bounty. There was a ocean of artichokes, living and dying by the sea. Many people would pay top dollar for their vast Pacific view. They have an ocean-bottom look, like sea anemones or urchins that have wandered onto dry earth. Since I arrived in California ten years ago, I love visiting the living artichokes, taking in the beauty of their form and breathing in their fragrance. A few years ago, I was so entranced that I captured them in two pastel paintings. (See “Artichoke Paintings” under Photography and Art on this blog.)

Not far from here is the annual Artichoke Festival held in Castroville, the artichoke capital of the world. This festival includes artichoke eating contests, artichoke ice cream (pale green and nutty in flavor – not bad), vegetable sculpture competitions, and artichoke-themed art.

In the 50’s and early 60‘s, we were one of the few families to eat artichokes in our suburban community near Pittsburgh PA. Fresh artichokes were rarely available then. As a child, I refused to eat most vegetables but the artichoke was no ordinary garden product, it was a massive, dense flower bud. How cool is that? The family group ritual of plucking the leaves and dipping them in liquid butter made for a special dinner event. These meals were unique for their engagement and participation. Stripping away the sepals and excess plant material to uncover the meaty heart, made the slow initial process of tiny scraping bites worthwhile. The leaves were the warm-up for the real event at the center.

In 1973, my sister and I hiked the southern coast of Crete from the Samaria Gorge to the tiny town of Loutro. A town that, incredibly, in 2012, still has no road to it. The trail curved along the shore over beach and cliffs above the jewel-like blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Small, isolated idyllic coves of white sand appeared around every corner. Arid shrubby mountainsides rose to our left. We were alone except for small bands of roaming goats, often heard before seen from the magical tinkling of their collar bells.  Then, out of nowhere a woman goatherd, in traditional Greek country dress, appeared. Without a common language, she smiled, and handed us an artichoke. The perfect gift.

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