This is an interesting article on how the Cardoon plant was discovered and became classified as an herb (beneficial weed).
Eating Thistles by Andy Griffin
On September 19 th , 1832, biologist Charles Darwin passed through the remote Argentine settlement of Guardia del Monte, and noted that the village marked the southernmost limit of the cardoon infestation on the pampas. Cardoon, or Cynara cardunculus , is a big thistle. Darwin had passed by weed patches where cardoons stood as high as a horse's back in thickets that covered hundreds of square miles. This week we've harvested cardoon for your CSA share boxes. “Why,” you may ask, “is my farm growing a plant that one of the brightest stars in the history of science described as a pernicious and invasive weed?” I can speak to your doubts but words only go so far, so I'm including a recipe at the end of this history. Cardoons are good food, and the proof is in the gratin.
Cardoon is a sister to the artichoke, but instead of eating the immature flower bud, we eat the petiole, or leaf stalk. Cardoons make flower buds that look like small, spiny artichokes, but you'd have to be hungry to make eating them worth the pain. A number of different cardoon varieties that have been developed by farmers, and most of them have been selected to have few, if any spines. The cardoon I've grown for you is an Italian breed called Gobbo di Nizza . Massed over hundreds of thousands of acres, the way that Darwin encountered them, I'd imagine that cardoons would be a dreary sight indeed, but in a garden setting the plants are beautiful and sculptural. I've found that cardoons offer excellent habitat for Ladybugs to breed and multiply in, so our cardoon patch not only serves as a food crop, it's also an insectary that benefits the rest of our more common vegetable crops.
Cardoons evolved around the rim of the Mediterranean Sea , and people have eaten them for a long time, but Roman gardeners are thought to have been responsible for taming this thistle into a garden vegetable. It was a Roman custom to dip tender, young cardoon stems in a simple sauce of warm olive oil and butter and eat them raw. The bigger stems were typically baked, steamed, or fried. As the Roman Empire expanded, the practice of growing cardoons extended as far north as the weather permitted. The cardoon, like the artichoke, is frost tender, so it didn't become established in colonies like Britannia or northern Gaul , but Roman cardoon recipes found favor in warmer regions. To this day, cardoons are much appreciated in Spain , southern France , and northern Italy . But cardoons haven't only provided pleasure at the table--- they've also provided fodder for a joke at the expense of the Swiss.
The word for thistle in Latin is cardo . The word for “big thistle” became cardone in Italian and chardon in French. In Mexico , big saguaro-like cacti are generically referred to as cardon . In alpine Switzerland , cooks wanted to emulate the magnificent cardoon recipes of their lowland relatives, but they couldn't, because frosty alpine Switzerland doesn't provide a good habitat for the temperate minded cardoon. Farmers improved the beet green, Beta vulgaris , so that a more cold tolerant plant could sport a fat, white, succulent and mild flavored stalk like chardon or cardone and could be cooked in the same way. “ Chardon Suisse ,” laughed metropolitan French chefs when they saw these odd new beet greens, “Swiss thistle!” The Erbette ‘chard' in your box last week is the descendent of the original thin-stemmed beet green that was improved into ‘Swiss thistle.' We'll grow ‘regular chard' for you later this year, along with red, gold, and pink chards. Ironically, I've met Americans who strip the leafy green part of the chard leaf off the stem and cook it and throw the thick stalk away, thus entirely missing the point. I've even had customers at farmers' market buy bunched beets and ask me to twist off the greens and toss them away, while at the same time they buy a bunch of chard from me. They're not saving any money, but I remind myself that the customer is always right. Still, if we remember our history, we're reminded that old fashioned recipes for Swiss chard ought to work well with cardoon.
When the Spanish conquistadores came to South America they brought their long horned cattle and their cardoons with them. A terrestrial age of Taurus dawned across the great southern plains. Cattle multiplied like fleas across the pampas. Their sharp hooves cut the turf and wore it away, providing a place for feral cardoon seed to germinate. Cattle dung fertilized the soil and gave it the flavor of home. Soon, isolated outcroppings of cardoons that had escaped from the garden metastasized into thorny jungles. The cardoons reacted to their new freedoms by shedding all vestiges of tender domesticity and reverting to their original vicious, spiny habits, just as the feral Spanish cattle grew more wily and wicked as they outwitted and outfought the native panthers. The Spaniards had come to America hoping to subdue and civilize a wild continent. But instead, long before Darwin showed up to observe nature, the cow and the cardoon had already gone “native” and reverted to their horny and thorny natures. When gauchos gave chase to descendents of the wild Iberian cattle, hoping to slaughter beef, the longhorns could disappear into oceans of thistles and thorns and be lost to the bolo, the riata , and the corral for good. The dance of progress had taken one step forward and two steps back, and that's an interesting dialectical evolution to ponder.
copyright 2008 - Andy Griffin