Globe Artichokes – not to be confused with Jerusalem Artichokes – are a gourmet delight, and if you haven’t ever tried one then, well, you don’t know what you’re missing. They’re easy to grow, perennial, and such beautiful plants that they make a great display when grown either at the back of a flower bed or by themselves in the vegetable garden.
The flowers are the bits you eat – but not the whole flower. When cooked, the base of each flower ‘leaf’ (it’s actually a petal, but it looks like a leaf) is tender and delicious. Pull one off, dip the base in mayonnaise or similar (my favourite is a mix of natural yoghurt with a dash of rice wine vinegar) then stick it in your mouth and peel the soft bit away with your teeth. Delicious. After eating a few leaves, try a sip of water – and you’ll find that it tastes sweet. Amazing. When you’ve dealt with almost all the leaves you’ll be at the ‘heart’ of the choke. The last leaves should be removed (and eaten) exposing a fuzzy flat area which would eventually become the flower. This should be removed with a spoon and discarded. What’s left will probably be one of the best things you’ve ever eaten.
Artichokes can be grown from seed or purchased as young plants. Seeds are, of course, cheaper. However, if you plant them directly into earth, there’s a very good chance they’ll rot. Fortunately, they’re very easy to germinate between a couple of sheets of damp tissue paper. Check them every day, removing any that show signs of mould, and when they have developed a root about 2cms long, they can be planted into a 6cm pot.
Slugs will try to eat the young plants so they are best protected with a copper ring until they are big enough to withstand a bit of chewing. Artichokes love rich, well drained soil and a good layer of mulch helps to keep the ground moist. The leaves are surprisingly delicate and will snap easily, so be careful cultivating around them. Any dead or damaged leaves should be removed or they are likely to become a haven for woodlice, and slugs.
Artichokes are perennials, and after producing a crop, a single plant will divide into several towards the end of the growing season. The following spring, this clump can be divided into separate plants. This means you can select for the plants you like: Artichokes carry their own protection in the form of a sharp spine at the tip of each leaf. When you grow your own, you’ll find that the shape of the leaf, and therefore the likelihood you’ll stick yourself with the spine, varies from plant to plant. Select for the ones that are easiest to deal with in the kitchen, and over the space of a couple of years you will only have good plants left.
The biggest flower is always the first to appear at the top of the main central stem. Wait until there’s a bit of give to it when you (gently!) squeeze it. If it’s firm, it still has some growing to do – and these are so good you’ll want to get every last bit of growth out of them before they’re picked. Other chokes form on side shoots. These will be smaller but just as tasty.
In a mild year, an overcrowded plant may produce a few final chokes as late as December. If so, consider yourself very lucky indeed!
Artichokes are cooked for taste rather than their vitamin content. As in culinary terms there are few things less satisfying than an ‘al dente’ artichoke and few things more satisfying than a well cooked one, don’t undercook them. Cut the stems off flush with the base of the chokes and rinse well, as if you grow organically there may be an earwig or two hiding inside. Place them upright in about 1 cm of water, bring to a boil and simmer for half an hour. Check to see if they’re done by sticking a fork into the cut stem end. If there’s almost no resistance, they may be done. If you start to eat them and find that the base of the leaves is still tough – and remember that the leaves are tougher on the outside, becoming more tender as you progress towards the middle – put them back in the water and cook for another few minutes, then check again.
While artichokes grow well outside in the UK for most of the year, they don’t overwinter well in hard frosts.
The received wisdom for overwintering care is: ‘cut the leaves down to 10 cms from ground level in late autumn, and cover with a thick mulch of straw leaving a hole in the middle so that the crown isn’t covered’.
While this works in some cases, if the crown gets frostbitten the whole plant dies. However, if you have a polytunnel there’s a better alternative – though it’s a bit more work. Dig up the entire root ball (which can be quite large) reasonably carefully: lever around the plant with a spade, lift the whole thing out and pop it into a bucket. Carry it into the polytunnel and replant it under the protection of a fleece cloche. Then in spring you can dig it up again and plant it outside. At that time, use a sharp spade to separate clumps into individual plants. Don’t do this when you dig them up for overwintering as they take much longer to recover at that time of year, and some may not make it. It’s much better to divide them in spring when they’re keen to grow.