It’s artichoke season in Italy. Ladispoli north of Rome, is celebrating its 66th Sagra del Carciofo Romanesco (Roman Artichoke Festival) with artichoke-themed menus at local restaurants, servings of “Carciofi fritti alla contadina” (farm style fried artichokes) prepared by le donne delle famiglie dei produttori locali (the women of the families of local producers) and a concorso delle sculture di carciofi (competiton of sculptures of carciofi)—along with concerts, displays, dances and fireworks. However, all of Italy is savoring a humble plant that has been cultivated for centuries per uso alimentare e, secondariamente, medicinale (for nutritive and, secondarily, medicinal use).
The word carciofo, like the artichoke itself, first came from Arabia, where the kharshuf brought two lovers together. Once upon a long-ago time the fair daughter of an Arabian farmer, after observing her donkey eating a strange plant, tried it herself. Experimenting with eating the thistles raw, grilled and stewed, she began selling them in the marketplace. A prince who heard of the new delicacy insisted on meeting the cook. They fell in love, married and lived happily ever after.
Carciofi migrated north to Italy. Aristocrats in ancient Rome so craved this exotic treat that they forbad the masses from buying or eating them. "Artichokes were discovered by asses," the writer Pliny observed disdainfully, "and are still being consumed by them." During the Renaissance artichokes, which were believed to have therapeutic powers, became so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them. Catherine de' Medici of Florence toted artichokes—and cooks to prepare them—to Paris when she married the future king of France in 1533.
The word carciofo debuted in Italian literature in the writings of the poet Ludovico Ariosto in the sixteenth century. By 1729, according to the venerable Vocabolario of the Accademia della Crusca, it had taken on another colloquial meaning as slang for a simpleton or foolish fellow.
At the end of the nineteenth century, an enterprising cook named Angelo Valiani became famous for the tasty carciofini sott'olio (artichoke heads in oil) that he sold at train stations in Rome and other towns. Delighting in his success, he proudly named his newborn son Carciofino. His parish priest refused to baptize the boy with such an outlandish name. Valiani argued that if a wild beast (leone, or lion) could inspire the name of Leo XIII, the pope at the time, how could the church object to a plant? The priest, stumped for a rebuttal, gave his blessing to the boy called "Little Artichoke."
Instead of tasty words, I offer a recipe from a friend from Emilia-Romana:
Carciofi e Cipolle Rosse all'Aceto di Balsamico
Artichokes and Red Onion with Balsamic Vinegar (serves 6)
6 large artichokes
2 large red onions
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup vegetable broth
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar (aged six or more years)
2 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh black pepper
*Clean and cut the artichokes and red onion into 8 wedges.
*Saute artichokes and red onion with 2 Tbsp olive oil for 2 minutes.
*Add salt and the vegetable broth and cook in a covered pan for 4 to 5 minutes.
*Remove the cover, add the balsamic vinegar and cook an additional 2 to 3 minutes.
*Sprinkle with fresh black pepper and serve immediately.
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.