At our local allotments the growers certainly know their onions.
And their cabbages, carrots, cucumbers and almost every other vegetable known to mankind.
They really are pretty knowledgeable, and are happy to share their expertise about soils, techniques, vegetable variety, weather conditions and anything else under the sun.
The advice is occasionally confusing and sometimes contradictory, but nevertheless to a relative novice like me, it’s always gratefully received.
I took on a small plot last year. And, perhaps, with a degree of over confidence accepted the challenge of another half plot this year.
In the corner of this new plot there are four plants with large, almost ornamental, light green semi-spikey leaves.
What struck me as slightly strange is that almost every other allotment grower did not know much about them.
It’s as if they were an alien species which made these old boys slightly unnerved and uncomfortable. There’s no tradition of them in the UK (and there’s certainly no category for displaying them at the end of season vegetable show held every September), so what were they doing in the allotments, I could almost hear them think.
They were, of course, artichoke plants.
I had to resort to the web to find out more…
Artichoke hearts grow from early summer. When they reach the size of cricket balls they can be cut.
They are incredibly popular in France and Mediterranean Europe. It seems everyone goes mad for them there, but over in the UK no one’s interested. You buy them jarred or with the sun-tried tomatoes and other the trendy anti-pasta dips, but no supermarket would dream of selling them fresh.
They do look a bit strange with their spiky petal-like leaves. Maybe this has put people off. They do seem a bit unwelcoming.
But we persevered. We cooked some. They just needed steaming for around 20-30 minutes in boiling water with a bit of garlic and a couple of bay leaves.
Suddenly everything changed.
Poking them with a knife we realised that the solid centre is now soft and fleshy.
The outer leaves can be discarded. As you peel them off you get closer to the heart and, as you do so, the bottom of each leaf or petal is bulkier and has more flesh.
The best way to eat these is to close your teeth around the leaf and the pull the sharper and harder end away from you. This allows the flesh to come away in your mouth.
It’s has a distinctive, rich favour which is almost nutty.
Some like to dip the leaves in butter or mayonnaise; others don’t bother and eat them neat, so to speak.
It’s quite an elaborate and delicate process (but strangely satisfying, nonetheless) as you work your way closer to the heart.
It also builds a sense of anticipation as you get closer to the centre … like a culinary Russian doll.
The heart itself is anything up to the size of a golf ball. This can be eaten whole and is quite delicious.
I’ve explained this to my fellow allotment holders, and I’ve even offered them a few to try for themselves.
They are not having any of it though.
They are quite happy growing (and eating) what they have always grown and eaten.
Perhaps artichokes will never take off in the UK. They are, after all, quite messy to eat, and you can’t just boil them to death and place them neatly on your plate. The taste and flavour is also quite complex for the traditional British palate.
Even so, growing artichokes is fun and pretty easy. It’s definitely worth a try.