My friend Marisa fed me artichokes while I was in Melbourne recently – a very fitting thing as she is an expert in Sicilian cookery, and the vegetable probably originated in that particular part of Italy. Marisa solved the problem they present for many of us recently when she blogged about ‘Carciofi (Artichokes and how to clean them.)'
Reading the supporting quotations in the OED is a good way to get a sense of the sequence of many events. The first mention of artichokes in England, (where I grew up) is from a manuscript of 1531 – and refers to “Bringing Archecokks to the Kings Grace’. Another notes that ‘The Hartichoch..is a kinde of Thistel, by the diligence of the Gardner, brought to be a good Garden hearbe.’ And then there is a hint of a date of introduction to England in a quotation from 1582 (from Haklyut) – ‘ In time of memory things haue bene brought in that were not here before, as..the Artichowe in time of king Henry the eight.’ Finally, a hint at the origin in a piece written in 1655 (by Thomas Moffett) – ‘Artichokes grew sometimes onely in the Isle of Sicil; and since my remembrance they were so dainty in England, that usually they were sold for crowns a peice.’
A puzzling thing to me is that artichokes feature prominently in English recipes of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries (albeit recipes clearly intended for the well-to-do), then seem to fade away. Why would that happen? Was it the wars? It is particularly strange given that recipe books suggest they were cooked in a huge variety of ways. Here is an interesting sweet dish from amongst the many artichoke recipes offered in The cook's dictionary, and housekeeper's directory, by Richard Dolby, 1833.
Artichokes And Almonds à mélange
Take half a pound of sweet almonds blanched and beat fine, with two tea-spoonsful of orange flower water; then take a quart of cream and boil it with a small quantity of cinnamon and mace; sweeten it with fine sugar and mix it with the almonds; stir them together and train it through a sieve. Let the cream cool and thicken it with the yolks of six eggs, then garnish a deep dish and lay paste at the bottom; then put in shred artichoke bottoms, being first boiled; and upon these a little melted butter shred citron and candied orange; repeating the same until the dish is nearly full, then pour in the cream and bake it without a lid. When it is baked grate sugar over it and serve it hot. Half an hour will serve to bake it.
Quotation for the Day.
There is nothing vsed to be eaten of Artochockes but the hed of them.
Andrew Boorde, in Compendyous Regyment of Helth, 1542.
P.S – the good Dr Boorde was wrong: my friend cooked the artichoke stalks too (as apparently they do, in Sicily), and they were absolutely delicious.