This is peak-season for globe artichokes – those curious-looking vegetables that are in fact the flower heads of an edible type of thistle. Arab in origin and common all over France, Italy and the Middle East, they also grow prolifically in my neighbour's garden here in Dorset. And they are an unusual and striking feature of the car park at Washingpool Farm Shop near Bridport, as well as the vegetable garden at Raymond Blanc's famous restaurant Le Manoir au Quat' Saisons near Oxford.
Like my neighbour, the plants are big, bold and architectural. They grow in clusters of arching jagged leaves and thick stems that culminate in fat heads of spiky leaves, or bracts as they are correctly known. Deep inside the head is the hairy and inedible 'choke'. If left to go to seed, the choke emerges Cinderella-like, transformed to a showy purple tassel that is more like the thistle as we know it.
Globe artichokes have a unique nutty flavour, similar to the Jerusalem artichoke but in no way related or flatulence-forming. Though they grow with relative ease in warmer parts of the UK, they are not as popular as they might be – perhaps because people are unsure of how to cook and eat them. As the late and erudite food writer Alan Davidson wrote "The eater must be equipped with front teeth and patience."
This is how it's done: boil the heads as in the Baby Artichoke Salad with Kalamata Olives and Rocket recipe, and scoop out the hairy chokes. Detach the leaves one-by-one and dip in an appropriate sauce – perhaps a lemony vinaigrette or home-made mayonnaise if serving cold, or Hollandaise sauce or just melted butter if serving hot. Suitably anointed, pass each leaf decorously between the teeth and scrape off the meaty portion at the base – a satisfyingly sensual experience. Make a tidy pile of discarded leaves at the side of your plate.
Once you've dealt with the leaves, there remains the fond or base – a tender and intensely flavoured delicacy in its own right. Cut it up and eat using a knife and fork. Artichoke bottoms are so prized that they are sometimes served alone, either tossed in oil and lemon, or used as a rather pretentious garnish for roast meat.
Varieties to look for
'Green Globe', large-headed, pale green round globes. Succulent fleshy leaves.
'Spinosi', viciously thorny lime-green leaves tipped with gold. Rich meaty flavour, slightly sweet, redolent of parsnips.
'Violetta', small-headed, purple-green elongated globes, tender enough to cook whole. Strong earthy flavour.
• Choose heads with firm tightly packed leaves and a vibrant fresh colour.
• Steer clear of any with brown or slack-looking leaves.
• Preferably eat on the day of purchase. Otherwise, wrap large single heads
tightly in cling film and store in the fridge for 2–3 days.
• If the heads have long stems, wrap them in damp newspaper and store in
the fridge for up to 2 days.
© Christine McFadden, June 2014