October 17, 2017 | Rome, Italy | °C

Blonds Prefer Artichokes

By Suzanne Dunaway
Published: 2005-10-01

This blond loves artichokes. Drawing by Suzanne Dunaway
G

entlemen may prefer blonds, but at least one blond prefers artichokes. When Fillipo Strozzi introduced artichokes to the ruling Medici family, Catherine became addicted to the strange cousin of the cardoon. At a large dinner party, she puffed up like a frog after having stuffed herself with so many artichokes that the banquet guests stopped eating to watch the show, fearing she might pop at any moment. This was not Catherine's fate, as she had other artichokes to fry.

Artichokes are believed to be one of the more tasty and effective aphrodisiacs, right up there with oysters and caviar, which also might explain Catherine's reputation as a woman about town.

The Medici may have popularized the exotic flower in Italy and France, but the artichoke existed long before her banquet tables were adorned by dishes of thistle. Although our English word artichoke implies heart and choke, the choke being at the heart of the flower, the accepted root of the word seems to be the Arabic al-kharshofa or al-karshuf. It then proceeds etymologically through the old Latin articoctus, “coctus” being cardoon, through various French varieties such as artichou and artichaud, arriving in Italy as carciofo, a word used also to describe someone acting pretty silly, such as someone dipping carciofo leaves in mayonnaise instead of having them in the proper way, alla romana, with mint and garlic.

Driving through silvery green fields of carciofi from Albano to the Abbey of Fossanova south of Rome, one can easily imagine how these exotic plants first attracted attention. Legend has it that an Arab farmer with the requisite beautiful daughter owned a large field full of what were then called thistles. His donkey munched daily on the thistle flowers which aroused curiosity in the daughter, who started munching them herself and was intrigued by their nutty taste.

A creative cook, she tried tossing the raw artichokes with salt and oil, but found them hard to digest. She grilled them but found them chewy. Then she tried steaming with herbs and salt. This led to "Eureka," or some Medieval Roman equivalent. A gourmet with business sense, she took them to the town market and sold all in her keep within minutes. The wise (and don’t forget, beautiful) daughter then dressed up in her finest, visited the local prince with an offering of the best of her gems, and they lived happy, productive and amorous lives well into their eighties.

Italian legend differs in that Horace wrote passionate poetry to a lady love named Cynara, after an Aegean island called Zinari. The island was named after yet another lovely nymph whose blinding beauty so enraged one of the more powerful gods of the time that he turned her into a thistle, but even in this prickly form, she managed to spread herself through Asia, Egypt and Greece, becoming the botanical name Cynara (Zinari) scolymus. Horace wrote, in loose translation, "I was always true to you, Cynara, in my fashion, always true to you in my way."

As the artichoke became known, its admirers increased. To protect their supply of precious carciofi, wealthy Romans forbade the masses to buy or eat artichokes. With disdain for the class system prevalent at the time, Pliny wrote that artichokes were discovered by asses and were still being conspicuously consumed by them.

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