When I lived in Spain, March was always the month when artichokes would arrive in the market. Later, I found them plentiful around the Venice lagoon. Floating vegetable boats parked in the canals would have buckets of pre-prepared artichoke hearts for sale: fondi di carciofi, the tender centres of small, young ones. I live in Mitteleuropa now and artichokes are thinner on the ground. They can be had, though, if you know where to find them: certain greengrocers always get them in in March. It’s a signal, for me, that winter is over.
There are many ways to prepare artichokes. You can stew them with mint. You can flatten them and fry them, alla giudea, as they do in Rome in the area of the old ghetto. My favourite, though, is the simplest, the way I learned to do it all those years ago in Spain.
Method: Take each artichoke head and cut the stalk off so that it stands flat on a plate. Then turn it over and bash it apart on a hard surface. The idea is to loosen the layers of leaves. Place each one upright on a generous sheet of foil and pull the leaves apart with your fingers. Sprinkle with salt and then drizzle olive oil generously between the layers of leaves. Pick up the edges of the foil and wrap around the artichoke so that it is completely covered. Do this with as many heads as you want to cook. Place in an oven dish, in a hot oven, and bake for 45mins. Remove from the oven and turn onto plates. Open the foil cases and allow to cool. When cool enough to touch, they are ready to eat. It should look like this:
To eat: Peel the leaves off, layer by layer. The bottom nub of each leaf will be tender enough to bite off and eat (NB: This is a messy meal to be eaten in your fingers). Each morsel is tiny but delicious. Finally you will reach a stage when the leaves are too tiny and start coming off in clumps. It is time for the choke. Turn the remains of the artichoke on its side, take a sharp serrated knife, and cut clean through, at the very base of the leaves, so that you miss the spiny choke. The base can then be eaten (about two mouthfuls if you’ve got a big one). Tiny, you had to work for it, but so good. It’s part of the discipline of the whole thing. This is the antithesis of instant gratification. But it’s still very gratifying.