Thistle fit for the throne

Thistle fit for the throne

Thistle fit for the throne Owning a grand, impressive and imposing posture and a stately manner, the artichoke definitely has royal qualities. Totally dignified, the artichoke stands alone erecting its head as if to reach the sky. The artichoke plant is actually a thistle; a thistle that has transformed itself into the king of vegetables. Each artichoke plant seems to have sovereignty over a small territory, a mere meter diameter of land, with only one big artichoke growing in the center, the head artichoke which I like to call the king. Actually, each plant bears a few more artichokes, 6 to 12 in total, but most are pruned off to give power to the remaining few. In the field, that one big artichoke, the king, is flanked by a few smaller buds, like little princes waiting patiently for their time on the throne. A field of artichokes resembles medieval Europe, with each little kingdom guarding its own little patch of territory, each king artichoke marking its place proudly. Regal by all means, the artichoke is considered one of the most luxurious vegetables. It’s like a rags-to-riches story. Once a wild growing thistle, the artichoke is a descendent of the cardoon, the savage beauty of the Mediterranean terrain. It was first cultivated in the early Middle Ages by the Arab agronomists from the wild cardoon to the global artichoke, as we know today; in a way, like magic alchemy turning an awkward wild plant into festive golden taste. 

The artichoke we savor is actually the bud of the flower of the plant and what appears like a single big bulbous flower is actually a zillion flowerets all crowded on a saucer-like flowerbed, which we consume as the bottom artichoke. What makes the artichoke so luxurious is this ridiculously small yield of taste compared to the huge plant that grows to a height of 1.5-2 meters, spreading its leaves to an equal length of diameter. But it is also the taste that is unique; laced with unmatched finesse, containing a hint of bitterness contrasting with a fresh sweetness. The taste is an ultimately subtle yet complex flavor, best brought out with simple cooking techniques like boiling, braising or roasting. The virtue of the artichoke lies in this simplicity that can create so much finesse from so little. The artichoke has the capacity to make any dish fit for the throne. One outstanding fact about its history really does have an acquaintance with crowns. Marilyn Monroe, then an unknown starlet named Norma Jean, was crowned Miss California Artichoke Queen in 1948, in Castraville, California. This crowning began her climb up the stairs to becoming the queen of stars of all ages. As I said, there is something magically regal about the once-thistle crown-like globe that truly belongs on the throne. 

Recipe of the Week

Whole fried artichokes appear like a golden crown adorning your plate and taste like jewels sparkling in your palate. Use very young, tender artichokes with the chokes still not developed. Snip the tips of the outer leaves if tough, if very tender leave them. Cut the stems off and smash each artichoke on the back so that the outer leaves open out like a sunflower. Remove any chokes or spiky inner leaves with a spoon or short paring knife. Fry in plenty of olive oil until golden-bronze. Drain excess oil putting fried artichokes heads down on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and enjoy crispy leaves like chips, reserving the softened bottom for the triumphal final taste. 

Event of the Week

This week is a festive opportunity to celebrate artichokes. The “1st International Artichoke Festival” is having its kick start in Urla May 2-3, co-organized by the İzmir Metropolitan Municipality, the Urla Municipality, the İzmir University of Economics-Department of Culinary Arts and Management and last by not least volunteers and devotees of Urla. The town of Urla, ancient Vourlá, only 35 kilometers south of central İzmir, is the epicenter of artichoke production extending to the west along Karaburun Peninsula. The festival will tackle all aspects of the regal artichoke, from traditional cooking methods to modern chef interpretations, from health benefits to medicinal uses, from flavor and taste to pleasures of eye and artifice. There will be a series of events, check the website. I suggest you just drive in to find out what’s happening and you’ll be rewarded with the royal taste of the best of the best artichokes. 

Fork of the Week

Another taste of Urla was recently crowned with a silver trophy in Italy. Olivurla, the sublime olive oil produced by Pelin Omuroğlu Balcıoğlu, won the silver medal in the BIOL 20th International Prize for organic olive oil. Pelin is the princess of olive groves in Urla, but her products from Ayerya Organic Farm have a wide range; her award-winning produce is available in fine delicatessens and stores like Eataly in Istanbul.

Cork of the Week

Normally, artichokes are very hard to match with wine as they contain cynarine, which creates an odd sweetish taste on the tongue when followed by water and turns bitter if followed by wine. I love both wine and artichokes, so I usually have a steely dry white with my royal globe and enjoy the sweetish bitterness on my tongue. Urla is also a great destination for wine lovers. The region, with a unique microclimate created by cool breezes from the sea, also offers a few of the best corks of Turkey. The recent boutique wineries sprouting up in Urla are like little princedoms, each hiding their own treasures in their wine cellars. It all started with Urla Winery and Urlice, followed by the USCA, MMG and Mozaik wineries, and all five wineries are now taking the lead in a project titled Urla Bağ Rotası/Urla Wine Route, soon to be joined by other wineries. Follow them and be the first ones to discover the lovely wines of Urla.