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Cardoons, a Delicious Vegetable
From Prehistory to Today
Although originally it was animals that ate artichoke thistles, or cardoons, it did not take long before humans discovered their delicious taste; by the fourth century B.C.E., as seen in Theophrastus, cardoons were already widely known for their wonderful flavour. They are mentioned in ancient Greek writings as being grown near Carthage (in modern day Tunisia), and is mentioned in Pliny's writings. This relative of the artichoke was popular in ancient Greek and Rome, and continued to be popular in the Middle Ages, in the gardens of the colonies of the United States of America, and right up to the late nineteenth century. Only recently has this vegetable fallen from favour, but this neglected food has been unjustly forgotten. It has a taste all its own, but reminiscent of artichokes, to which it is related.
Just like their familiar relatives the artichokes, cardoons take a huge amount of space in a garden, and can easily become invasive (it is an invasive exotic in some parts of South America, Australia and Indonesia). The plants require a cool growing season of about five months to thrive, but because it is a thistle, it can easily adapt itself and naturalize to any dry climate. When harvesting cardoons, be careful because the stalks are covered with spines or bristles that are almost invisible but can be very painful! You should take great care around this plant, even in handling the spineless varieties. Be sure to wear heavy gloves, and thick pants with boots, as well as a thick long-sleeved shirt, or you will regret it!
The delicious taste of cardoon honey is like nothing else you have ever tried!
If you are not able or willing to grow your own cardoons, you just might be lucky enough to find this vegetable for sale, perhaps in a local farmers' market, and then you will be in for a treat! The flower buds can be cooked and served just as you would an artichoke in any of the hundreds of recipes available; the stems can be braised or steamed, or battered and fried, as it is served in New Orleans. Even the root of the plant is edible, and can be roasted, steamed, broiled, braised, or sliced thinly and fried like potato chips.
Cardoons play a large part in the regional cuisines of several Mediterranean countries, including Spain, Provence, and Italy, and in Abruzzi, a region of Italy, cardoons in chicken broth with meatballs form the first dish of the traditional Christmas Day lunch.
And if you keep bees, they can turn cardoon pollen into a delicious honey! If you make cheese, you can use the plants as a source of rennet, as is done by cheesemakers in Spain and Portugal.
If you have trouble growing plants from seeds, you can always try with live starter plants. Again, remember they require a lot of room!