Aspen Times Weekly Food Matters: ’Choked Up
55th Annual Castroville Artichoke Festival
A longstanding celebration of California’s newly minted state vegetable, including tastings, cooking demos, a farmers’ market, field tours, and quirky Agro Art competition, in which amateurs and professionals sculpt 3D masterpieces from fresh produce.
May 31 & June 1
Artichoke Festival Parade, May 18
WANDERING THE PRODUCE department of Whole Foods in Basalt last week, I felt an invisible pull toward one display that seemed to dwarf all the rest. Globe artichokes the size of bocce balls were stacked into a vertical jigsaw puzzle. But only half of the leafy specimens were the traditional olive green; the others were marked with deep purple striations. Since it’s my personal mission to pick up at least one oddball fruit or vegetable — pummelo and turmeric root were two past successes; black radish, not so much — on every rare visit to the natural emporium, I had to scoop one up. My mom, who lived in Sausalito, Calif., long ago, would occasionally cook artichokes for my brother and I when we were growing up in New England. To me, they represent the beginning of summer, and I still love the slow ritual of peeling away silvery layer after layer to reveal hidden treasure: a fuzz-covered heart.
At home that night, following a 45-minute steam bath, I plucked the tender plum-colored artichoke leaves one by one, dragging each through a quick whip of yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, and herbs before teeth-scraping each clean. They were meaty and creamy — I later learned they may be of the Italian “Violetto” variety — some of the best I’ve ever enjoyed.
But the tastiest artichokes, by far, were had in Castroville, a small farming town about 15 miles north of Monterey Bay. I was on a road trip, tracing all 1,540 coastal miles of U.S. Route 101, when I veered off course and found myself cruising beneath a banner proclaiming, “Artichoke Center of the World.” (Whole Foods artichokes are no doubt trucked in from here, too, but all food tastes better on its native soil, doesn’t it?)
After passing a half-dozen roadside stands with hand-painted signs, including one weather-ravaged watercraft, and the unfortunately named Artichoke Inn, I spied it: an enormous green artichoke sculpture (pictured right) jutting skyward from a farm market strip mall.
The hollow, domed structure is the crown jewel of the Giant Artichoke Family Restaurant, a mom-and-pop roadside diner serving up the freshest, juiciest artichokes in every preparation imaginable. Though best know for sinfully crispy fried artichoke hearts, the eatery offers a four-course artichoke tasting for about $20. Restaurants in neighboring towns showcase artichoke soups, stews, casseroles — even sweet breads — during peak season from March to May.
Castroville has celebrated its agricultural claim to fame since the Mediterranean-native perennial thistle was first planted there by Swiss-Italian vintners in 1922. The spiny, fern-like artichoke is actually an edible bud, harvested at an immature stage from plants that grow up to 4-feet tall and spread up to twice that in diameter. Baby artichokes are not, in fact, young, but stunted in growth because of being blocked from the sun by uppermost leaves.
In May 1959, the inaugural Castroville Artichoke Festival (see opposite page) began the tradition of hosting a “weird little party involving all manner of ’choke recipes, wares, and goods,” says a pal who lived in neighboring Marina for four years. “Artichoke fields around my house, actually. I walked them all the time.”
Thanks to frost-free winters and cool, foggy summers, California grows nearly all of the artichokes consumed in America, and of those, an estimated 85 percent hail from Castroville.
“‘Rippers’ were thieves who would enter fields at night and steal produce off of the stalk,” my friend continues. “A farmer told me stories of fields being stripped. The artichoke fields are wide open, unfenced for the most part. Agricultural theft is a big problem in California: Huge industry covering eminence grounds, hard to protect financially. Like, a truck full of picked nuts is worth $300,000.”
Artichokes may not hold a garden hoe to California’s top cash crops, such as grapes, almonds, and, now bigger than both of those, marijuana, but a vegetable that reaps $50 million annually is not small potatoes. (Potatoes would likely be Colorado’s state “vegetable,” if we had one.)
Another consideration lately: lack of water. Artichokes require plenty of moisture to produce succulent, tender buds; dehydrated plants become unpalatable, depleting marketable inventory and causing national prices to skyrocket. (A single artichoke at Whole Foods is currently $2.99; in Castroville last year they were 10 for $1.) In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency — the worst in history. If the trend continues, the agricultural industry could lose $5 billion in revenue this year alone. Artichokes may become scarce.
Some happy news: in April 2013, state officials finally tackled a long-overdue agenda item, proclaiming the artichoke California’s official vegetable.
“In Marina it was common for us to meet at the beach and have grilled artichoke halves and drinks before heading out for actual dinner,” my friend says with a whisper of nostalgia. “The texture and flavor are so unlikely coming from a hardened, pointed, cactus-like plant. The petals are totally bitter raw. But put some heat to them and they turn to the perfect thing to run your teeth over, like a natural potato chip.”
Amanda Rae considers the artichoke symbolic of the human heart. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Many locations on Basalt Mountain were barren as recently as two months ago. However, nutrients unlocked during the Lake Christine Fire and a wet winter have sparked a remarkable recovery. Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is leading fire ecology tours to discuss the changes.