To view a slide show of images of Greek artichokes and how to prepare them, click here. To try recipes mentioned in this story, click here for braised veal with artichokes, here for braised monkfish with artichokes, and here for artichokes marinated in wine, olive oil, lemon, and garlic.
Besides supplying us with their delicious edible buds, artichokes, if left to blossom, surprise you with their huge, furry, stunningly purple flowers. First cousins to the ubiquitous Mediterranean thistle, they look like medieval chevaliers, wrapped in impenetrable green armor. Some artichokes have large spikes on the pointed edges of their leaves, but their sensitive hearts remain tender and vulnerable, juicy and crunchy. They truly embody the essence of the Mediterranean: sentimental and sensual but at the same time hardy and a model of perseverance. They totally dry out in the summer, only to bud miraculously from the earth with the very first rains, their lush leaves emerging like artesian wells from the soil.
They grow very easily, or so you might be told. Artichokes don't need much water, Greeks will tell you, nor do they require extra care: they simply take root, never to leave your garden. Unfortunately, not in our garden! We have been trying to grow them for years ...
From my childhood, I remember the stubborn artichokes that one spring morning pierced the porch floor of the house I grew up in Patissia, on the outskirts of Athens. Our home was built on my grandfather's garden and was surrounded by verandas with thick concrete foundations that apparently proved to be no match for the old, sprouting artichokes. I told Costas, my husband, this story the first year we moved to Kea, as we were trying to decide which plants to grow in our stony island garden. I was certain artichokes would be an unqualified success.
Following the advice of Angelos, who owns the nursery, we planted a few young artichokes at the end of our first winter on the island. Most of them died slowly before spring, but a couple did grow a bit, giving us two slim artichokes. That was it; by summer they disappeared forever. We tried once more the following year, with similar results. Then we gave up.
Last spring, as I was researching my monthly magazine column, I called Vangelis Lykourentzos, an artichoke producer from the Peloponnese, where most Greek artichokes are grown. We spoke about his village's upcoming artichoke feast, and I offered to help them attract visitors. At some point I told him about our gardening misfortunes, and he was genuinely surprised: "We don't plant artichokes in the winter," he said. "You start with the tuber-like roots late in the summer. I will bring some to Kea and help you plant them."
Vangelis explained that when both the oversized artichoke flowers and the leaves dry up in the summer, the plant's root deepens in the soil, remaining fleshy and retaining its moisture. With the first winter rains, the leaves sprout, and he promised us that after a few months we would start to have our own crop. Our previous failures, though, made such an outcome difficult to believe.
Early last September, during our Kea Artisanal program, Vangelis came to Kea with two overflowing cases of artichoke roots. Costas had cleared weeds and stones from a patch of land, added lots of manure, plowed it, and installed a drip system just as Vangelis had instructed. About four hours before planting the tuber-like artichoke roots we turned the water on—something that drove eco-friendly Costas crazy, as he couldn't bear using so much water in September, when the island's resources are at their lowest. The truth was that we were not convinced that something would really come out of this, our third artichoke venture. Vangelis showed us how to plant the roots, gently pushing each tuber into the ground, twisting it until "it finds its place in the soil," as he said.