Friday, February 19, 2010

Plant profile: Cynara cardunculus

I saw this plant growing in our neighbor David's garden a while back and was suitably awed. I went right out the next weekend and got one from Flora Grubb, the local plant-pusher. It started as a cute little 4" pot specimen in May (left), and by August the thing had crushed several nearby clumps of Dietes and eaten a small dog too I think... it's like a freaky monster thistle on steroids (below left).

Latin name: Cynara cardunculus ("sye-NAR-ah kar-DUNK-you-luss")
Common name: Cardoon, Artichoke Thistle
Originally from: the Mediterranean, where it was "domesticated" in ancient times.
Blooms: In summer, giant, purple-haired thistle-like flowers are covered in bees and smell like honey.
Light: Likes full sun
Water: Seems to be doing great with nothing but rain!
Where to find in P. Garden: In the left bed, near the arch.

Ancient plants, the earliest description of the cardoon comes from the fourth century BC Greek writer Theophrastus. The cardoon was popular in Greek and Roman cuisine. Cardoons remained popular in medieval and early modern Europe, and were common in the vegetable gardens of colonial America. They fell from fashion only in the late nineteenth century. In Europe, cardoon is still cultivated in Provence, Spain and Italy. In the Geneva region, where Huguenot refugees introduced it in about 1685, the local variety cardy is considered a culinary specialty. "Before Cardoons are sent to table, the stalks or ribs are blanched by tying them together and wrapping them round with straw, which is also tied up with cord, and left so for about three weeks". Mouldy stalks for dinner! Anyone?

Cardoon stalks can be covered with small, nearly invisible spines that can cause substantial pain if they become lodged in the skin. Several spineless cultivars (like ours) have been developed to overcome this, but don't suggle with them anyway - you never know.

While the flower buds (in November, left) can be eaten just like artichokes, more often the stems are eaten after being braised in liquid like stock etc. and they have an artichoke-like flavor. Battered and fried, the stems are also traditionally served at St. Joseph's altars in New Orleans. The main root can also be boiled and served cold. Cardoons are also an ingredient in one of the national dishes of Spain, the Cocido madrileƱo, a slow-cooking, one-pot, meat and vegetable dinner simmered in broth.

In the Abruzzi region of Italy, Christmas lunch is traditionally started with a soup of cardoons cooked in chicken broth with little meatballs (lamb or more rarely, beef), sometimes with egg (which scrambles in the hot soup - called stracciatella) or fried chopped liver and heart.

Cardoons are used as a vegetarian source of enzymes for cheese production. In Portugal, traditional coagulation of the curd relies entirely on this vegetable rennet. This results in cheeses such as the Nisa (D.O.P.), with a peculiar earthy, herbaceous and a slightly citric flavour that bears affinity with full-bodied or fortified wines.

The cardoon has attracted recent attention as a possible source of biodiesel. The oil, extracted from the seeds of the cardoon, and called artichoke oil, is similar to safflower and sunflower oil in composition and use. It's quite an industrial-strength plant: In some places, including parts of the U.S., cardoon is so successful at escaping into the wild that it is legally listed as a "noxious weed".

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