Hello, I’m Andrea Castillo and this is Seasonal, a newsletter that connects you to the Bay Area food system, one fruit and vegetable at a time. Each post highlights the most interesting aspects of one seasonal fruit or vegetable grown and harvested around the Bay Area. Seasonal is a public good, and all past and future posts are free to read, but if you want to support my quest to deepen our connection to food and contribute to building a stronger food community, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for $5/month. Find me on Instagram at @seasonalbayarea or e-mail me at email@example.com to share your feedback and suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to unsubscribe, click the link at the bottom of this post.
This week we nerd out on artichokes (available March-June and September-December).
Last summer, a small group of friends invited my husband and me to make wine with them. It’s a homemade endeavor with a professional twist: our group leader, Tom, used to make his own wine and grow his own grapes. He still had wine-making equipment from those days sitting around, including steel drums, Brix measuring instruments, a hand-cranked press, and two used French oak barrels he managed to snag for this basement wine adventure. The plan is to make a few hundred bottles of malbec, an experimental malbec rosé, and cabernet sauvignon. One of my favorite activities so far is all the tasting throughout the process.
In March, it was time for a taste test. During the tasting get-togethers, we usually taste and eat so we organized a potluck. I wanted to bring an artichoke dish to honor the year’s first artichoke season. As I was learning more about them, I came across harsh criticism against my idea from the late founder of the famous James Beard Foundation: an organization that celebrates and supports the people behind America’s food culture and awards its coveted James Beard Awards. In 1971, Beard wrote that “artichokes spoil the flavor of fine wines and therefore should be forbidden at great dinners.” Never mind then. Even if our wine isn’t a fine one, I did not want to spoil our tasting with a James-Beard-forbidden artichoke dish!
So why can’t artichokes and wine play nice? Artichokes are chock-full of a unique chemical compound, cynarin, an acid that makes everything taste extra sweet. An artichoke can morph a balanced, fine wine into a sweet, boring bottle of aged grapes.
Cynarin is like the karate kid on our taste buds: it waxes on as we eat the artichoke, dialing down our perception of sweetness by coating the sweet receptors in our taste buds. After chewing on a piece of bread or taking a sip of beer, it waxes off our tongue and we suddenly experience sweetness again. The before and after tricks our brain into thinking the food we’re now tasting is sweeter than it really is—the more artichoke we eat in a row, the sweeter that aftertaste will seem. Cynarin is a trickster acid that fools you into an alternative reality where a glass of chardonnay could pass for grape juice and even a plain glass of water tastes like it came from a sweetened tap!
But not all wines are created equal and artichokes, which hail from the same land that gifted us Italian Pinot Gris, Frascati, or Greco di Tufo, play nice with bone-dry (wine lingo for low in sugar), acidic wines. Wines like a dry Sauvignon Blanc, Manzanilla, or Champagne Extra Brut don’t give cynarin much of a chance to trick us: these wines are low on sugar by design and go well with an artichoke parmesan salad or marinated artichokes.
an unlikely vegetable
Like dry wine, dry climates also pair well with artichokes. Artichokes originated in the sun-kissed areas around Sicily and northern Africa and grew well in southern Spain in the Middle Ages. Globe artichokes, the artichokes we enjoy in most restaurants or in our kitchens, are the large, edible young flower buds that evolved from a prickly, weedy thistle. The parent of modern artichokes, a wild cardoon thistle, is akin to an American embassy: an impenetrable and armed to the teeth plant that fends off any interest and attack, especially from hungry herbivores.
Why someone would look at that aggressive, barbed wire of a vegetable and decide to eat it is beyond me, but that, of course, is what they chose to do a long, long time ago. Somehow those prickly thorns and hidden edible chokes tricked someone somewhere into eating them. The trick worked because they must’ve liked what they tasted.
After centuries of selective breeding to optimize for less spiky varieties, humans transformed a wild, thorny thistle into a gentler, thornless plant with plump bracts that don’t always draw blood when handled. Bracts, by the way, are the tightly layered leaf-look-a-likes that encase the delicious, tender heart and an inedible, fuzzy choke inside the artichoke—hence the choke in artichoke. When the artichoke flower matures, the fibrous chokes bloom into gorgeous violet florets that attract bees and other pollinators.
While some artichoke flowers manage to get sold for decoration, artichokes are not commonly farmed for their flowers, but rather for their delicious core. To ensure the young buds don’t flower, rendering the artichoke inedible, artichokes are harvested when the young bud is nice and tight. In California, artichokes are hand-harvested twice: in late spring and throughout the fall. California loves its artichokes and they’ve been declared the state’s official vegetable, but they have not been around for long.
ciao! hola! olé?
Artichokes arrived in California’s Bay Area in the late 19th century as Italian immigrants made their way across the Atlantic and to the continental United States. Missing the taste of home, they started planting artichokes in a land reminiscent of Italy’s dry, cool, Mediterranean climate. Specifically, they chose the southwestern coast of the Bay Area, around Half Moon Bay, where the first artichokes in Northern California would bask in the sun and settle into their new territory.
Unlike difficult wine pairings, artichokes paired well with California’s climate and thrived in their new local ecosystem. Those artichokes satisfied their growers’ cravings but their trickster nature suddenly went beyond tricking taste buds. The artichokes planted around Half Moon Bay didn’t stay put. Soon after those first plantings, the story goes, artichokes genes went wild—literally—and the new wild plant earned the not-so-prestigious classification as an aggressive invasive weed in most California counties.
But was it really the Italians who inadvertently opened up this can of worms?
For decades, the large-scale, commercial nature of Italian artichokes around northern California deceived locals into pinpointing the Italian variety as the one behind the unwelcome invasion. But in 2012, researchers at the University of California Riverside (UCR) used microsatellite technology and genetic tests to figure out how the artichoke went rogue. The late 19th-century Italian immigrants were not the only ones to have transported artichokes to California. In fact, Spanish artichokes landed in Southern California as the Italians started planting them around the Bay Area. The Spanish had planted their variety of artichokes (different from the Italian ones), throughout their missions. For a while, those Spanish artichokes lay low in self-contained, small-scale gardens. As they grew, however, the Spanish artichokes had other plans in mind and they reverted to their ancient ways—genetically. Apparently, domesticated plants can de-domesticate themselves, returning to their original state in a relatively short period of time. In artichokes, this can happen when artichokes grow from seed instead of growing as clones from their original parent (the latter requires human assistance). Based on UCR’s genetic analysis and tracing, the Spanish artichoke was probably the original invasive trickster. This Spanish variety wasted no effort in regaining its weedy, prickly, hardly-edible state, and is the most likely culprit to have invaded the golden state like there was no tomorrow.
So what if the Spanish artichoke had a few tricks up its sleeve? What’s the big deal when Spanish artichokes de-domesticate across an entire ocean and continent? Well, there are a couple of big deals.
The first big deal is that a de-domesticated, invasive thistle like the wild artichoke “is impenetrable by man or beast… and nothing else can now live” as Charles Darwin observed. In a place like California, the invasive artichoke thistle thrives because it evolved around the Mediterranean, where the climate is a near-perfect match for California’s and where there was already an extensive history of cattle grazing. In other words, nice weather and California’s relatively new ranching landscape made the tricked-out artichoke feel right at home. As a response to extensive grazing, the wild artichoke evolved to grow inch-long spines to deter attackers and it grew just like that in California, hence its impenetrable nature.
Without a natural predator—grazers will eat everything but this thorny weed—the wild artichoke has ample reign to grow as it pleases. On top of that, the wild artichoke grows year-round, crowding out other native annual plants and grasses, reducing biodiversity, and degrading land. Similar to how the tame, edible artichoke hijacks our taste buds, the aggressive, wild artichoke takes over terrain and water resources, forcing out previously established native inhabitants like native California grasses, quail, and bobcats.
The other big deal is that the wild artichoke thistle makes it quite tricky to restore native habitats. Next time you’re on a hike, keep an eye out for wild artichokes. They should be easy to spot. After all, they have now spread to more than half of the entire state of California, including almost all coastal counties. If you are lucky enough to visit Audubon California’s Starr Ranch Sanctuary in Orange County, you may find wild artichokes outside the ranch, but you’re unlikely to see any on its 4,000 acres. Without the use of herbicides, Dr. Sandy DeSimone, who is the Director of Research and Education at the Sanctuary, led experiments in 1997 that successfully eradicated the out-of-place artichoke dweller in 700 of their 4,000 acres. Crews worked day and night not only to remove the wild artichokes (manually, mechanically, and even by heating up the soil) but also to bring back the displaced habitat. By 2020, most of the wild invaders were gone thanks to relentless physical labor from crews who live at the ranch for up to 10 months a year and earn $20/hour. While successful, scaling these types of restoration efforts throughout California is no easy task and if the state ever wants to fully eradicate this prickly trickster, it could take decades, millions in funding, and thousands of hands.
Artichokes gone wild. Meadows Canyon Trail at Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley, CA
It’s all fun and games when artichokes trick our senses and we experience temporary hypogeusia—the reduced ability to taste sweet, sour, bitter, or salty things. Spanish Missionaries and Italian families brought their beloved thistle to the vast and fertile California coasts where practically everything that grew back home could also thrive.
Transplanting plants to new habitats demands great responsibility. In the makrut lime Seasonal, we explored how transplants can become vessels for invasive pests. Artichokes show how transplants themselves can become pests. New species don’t always ruin the ecosystem they end up living in, but when they do, they leave a chaotic legacy with long-lasting negative impacts. Without due care and diligence, we end up paying a hefty price to access everything, everywhere.
treats, not tricks
Tricksters work best when they remain one step ahead, breaking rules or crossing boundaries when others least expect it. Tricks also work well by leveraging the absence of knowledge. When it comes to artichokes, for example, cynarin tricks your tastebuds into thinking things are sweeter than they are, which tricked respected chefs like James Beard into concluding that artichokes and wines simply do not get along. It’s fine to adopt this rule of thumb and avoid this pairing. It’s also fun to challenge established norms and leverage science to learn and evolve: you can indeed enjoy wines with artichokes, you just have to choose the appropriate ones that will delight your tastebuds despite the effects of cynarin. Expanding knowledge opens up new fields of possibilities. And possibilities empower us to gain a sense of agency in shaping our own reality. That reality can be one in which you enjoy a certain food pairing like never before. It can also be a reality in which defeating invasive species is actually possible, even when greats like Darwin saw no chance of success.
Liked artichokes? Nerd out on pears, brussels sprouts, or onions next.
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Andrea Castillo is a food nerd who always wants to know the what’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of the food she eats.
Looks likemutated sweet gum :D