"The artichoke, with a tender heart dressed up like a warrior..." So begins Ode to the Artichoke by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Pablo Neruda. The simile is an apt one - it is indeed an 'armored' vegetable, with tough, scale-like outer leaves providing protection for its tender core. We know from contemporary accounts that the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed the delicious, silky juiciness of artichoke hearts. Artichokes were introduced as a crop on the Iberian Peninsula by the occupying Arabs, and were eaten at aristocratic tables throughout Europe during the Renaissance. They occur, in countless varieties, all over the world. Spain's most widely-grown variety is Blanca de Tudela: its distinctive qualities give it enormous gastronomic potential, which has yet to be fully explored. Artichokes are grown all over the country, but Benicarló (Castellón, eastern Spain) and Tudela (Navarre, in the north) are the growing areas with the longest tradition.
The artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is rightly described as a vegetable, but is actually a flower. Artichoke "heads" are the flower buds of the plant, a distant relative of the common thistle, which has evolved under human guidance into what it is today over the course of centuries. Its origin is uncertain: it might have come from Egypt or northern Africa, or elsewhere within the Mediterranean Basin. The plant was known to the Greeks and Romans as Cynara and highly regarded because of its diuretic and medicinal properties. Its introduction into the Iberian Peninsula is not well documented: one version believes the Visigoths introduced it as a crop into northern Europe, though it is generally accepted that the Arabs were responsible for planting it systematically. Artichokes were all the rage during the Renaissance, possibly because of the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici's (1519 - 1589), belief that they were an aphrodisiac. Hundreds of artichoke varieties have emerged, almost always linked to a particular region and with diverse appearances, textures and flavors. The most common in Spain is Blanca de Tudela, from La Ribera in Navarre, which accounts for 95% of production. This green artichoke is small, flat-bottomed and compact and has an idiosyncratic indentation on top. It's also crisper with fleshier, more tender bracts than other varieties. With an annual production of 300,000 tons, Spain is the world's second biggest producer in the world and the leading exporter. The crop is grown all over Spain: a third in Murcia in the southeast, another third in the Levante area on the east coast and the rest in Andalusia and the north Ribera del Ebro area (Navarre, La Rioja and Aragón). Although Tudela (Navarre) and Benicarló (Castellón) are minority contributors to Spain's artichoke production, they have been growing them the longest. The provenance and quality of their artichokes are guaranteed by Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Alcachofa de Benicarló and Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) Alcachofa de Tudela. La Ribera is one of Spain's most-renowned vegetable-producing areas. Vast areas of irrigated land enjoy a Mediterranean climate: high summer temperatures and low winter ones without major frosts. The surrounding hillsides now have wind turbines to capitalize on the cierzo, the cold dry north wind. Despite lower temperatures, the area has little rain and many sunny days annually. Fields grow asparagus, pimientos del Piquillo (little pointed red peppers) and cogollos de Tudela (lettuce hearts). Tudela, the capital of La Ribera, also lends its name to Spain's most widely-grown variety of artichoke: Blanca de Tudela.
Although artichoke production is not high in Navarre (barely 1,000 tons a year), almost all the artichokes produced in Spain come from plants grown here: it supplies many producers with artichoke cuttings or scions, thereby guaranteeing the continuation of this species. The reproduction method is surprising: although certain varieties come from seeds, the prevalent method here is to plant cuttings. When the plants are uprooted at the end of the season in early July, the grower retains part of the stalk. The 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 in) stick is replanted in mid-August to provide the basis of a new crop. This method guarantees abundance and quality and also helps avoid diseases. Most farmers alternate artichokes with other vegetables to avoid exhausting the land. "Artichoke plants have a tendency to degenerate, which is caused by natural mutations; this is why plant selection is such an important job," explains Navarre's Technical Institute for Farm Management's Juan Ignacio Macua, an agricultural engineer who studied the adaptation of 36 different varieties of artichoke for his doctoral thesis. In fact, although Tudela's small artichoke production is partly because of low temperatures that render the plant unproductive during winter, the cold is precisely what ensures greater stability within the plant's genetic material. "In Murcia and Levante, where the biggest plantations are, the heat accentuates degeneration and they suffer big losses as a result." A Traditional Crop In Benicarló in late April, the harvest is already in its final throes. Artichoke fields are interspersed among lettuce and other vegetables and, inevitably (for this is the Levante), countless orange trees: the scent of their blossom hangs deliciously in the air. Artichoke growing calls for a balance between cold and heat. Frost does damage, reduces the quality of the artichoke and darkens its leaves. Benicarló's proximity to the Mediterranean protects its crops from major temperature swings and provides moderate winters - just the conditions an artichoke needs to grow firm, round and compact. Too much heat makes the artichokes open too quickly and become hairy inside, so the best time to eat them is from November to April when low temperatures give a compact, crisp product. These dates vary according to region: the further south, the earlier the harvest. In Tudela, where springtime is cool, the season lasts well into May. The first artichokes can be cut from mid-September. In Benicarló, peak production occurs in January and February. Day laborers cut the artichokes when they reach just the right point of maturity. The plant's irregular shape means that harvesting must be done by hand. The artichoke heads are cut off individually to be selected and sorted later. Only those that qualify as extra or primera - the biggest, most compact and best quality - will be canned or bottled under the PDO label. The remainder may go to the canning industry outside the PDO, which absorbs about 70% of Spain's artichoke production. Tudela's Regulatory Council allows canning and bottling producers access to Protected Geographic Indication coverage, thereby guaranteeing that their product is natural and still has all its attributes intact. A Foodie's Delight In Navarre, artichokes are an essential ingredient in menestra de verduras, a medley of local vegetables. In Levante, the most traditional way of eating artichokes is a dish called torrá: the artichoke is flattened, seasoned with oil and salt and grilled. Artichokes are a versatile vegetable: they can be eaten raw in salads or dipped in batter and fried. Ricardo Gil, who runs Treintaitrés in Tudela, finds this adaptability appealing. "That tender texture is quite magic; you can do whatever you like with it," he explains. Ricardo attributes the quality of their Blanca de Tudela variety to their slow winter growth. "Because they remain on the plant for a long time, the heads gradually take up nutrients from the soil and this makes them very juicy and flavorful." Also, its leaves spring from the heart itself rather than from the flower stalk. "As a result, the heart is bigger and more compact so that it has much greater culinary potential than other varieties whose hearts falls apart when you cut into them." Artichoke hearts provided Iñaki Rodaballo with the basis for his invention "Alcachofa gold", one of the star pinchos at Pamplona's Café Niza. It won a prize at Navarre's Semana del Pincho (Pincho Week) and consists of a fried artichoke, a bit of foie gras and little else. "A little foie gras rounds out the tapa and provides a finishing touch. It could just be an extra served on the side; the artichoke is delicious on its own and doesn't need anything to set it off", declares the young chef.
In the area known as the Ribera de Navarra (southern Navarre), on the banks of the Ebro river, the best stalk vegetables can be found - cardoon, borage and especially asparagus - all of which grow to a very high standard of quality in this microclimate where winter is cold and spring mild. The white, purple and green Navarre asparagus in its various varieties is covered by the PGI Espárragos de Navarra. The Ribera de Navarra is one of the richest market garden areas in Spain, and its vegetable recipes - especially menestra (a vegetable medley) - are some of the most emblematic dishes in Navarran gastronomy.
Asparagus is also grown in other parts of Spain, the best-known being that from Aranjuez in the province of Madrid. In Andalusia, thePGI Huétor-Tájar (Granada), covers native breeds of green asparagus having a flavor similar to that of wild asparagus.
Author: Andrés Ramírez Soto/©ICEX
Translation: Hawys Pritchard/©ICEX