Artichokes, Myths and Legends
According to the Greek myth, the first artichoke was a beautiful young mortal woman named Cynara who lived
on the Aegean island of Zinari. One day one of the twelve gods of Mount Olympus, Zeus (King of all Gods), was
visiting his brother Poseidon (God of the Sea). As he laid eyes on the sensuous and very beautiful Cynara who
was bathing on the shores, he noticed she was strong, confident and unaffected by the presence of the god. He so
was impressed by her strength that he instantly fell in love and seduced her. Zeus decided to make Cynara a
goddess so she could be closer to his home on Mount Olympus. Zeus would meet with Cynara whenever his wife,
Hera (Queen of all Gods), was away.
However, Cynara greatly missed her family and became homesick, so occasionally she sneaked back to visit the
mortals. When Zeus discovered this un-goddess behaviour, in a fit of jealous rage, he hurled her back to earth
transforming her into the first unusual but striking artichoke plant. The artichoke was covered in thorns to
protect its vulnerable heart, which when flowering it would produce an exquisite spiky purple blossom; a
spectacular flower to match the goddess’ beauty. Thus, the botanical name for artichoke is the female name
Cynara. Artichokes were considered an aristocratic vegetable and were known in history as ‘food for the Gods’.
Due to the story of the desirous god Zeus, they were also considered an aphrodisiac.
Although ancient artichokes were very pretty and the flower very striking, their thorny exterior demanded that
they be isolated. As a result of Zeus’ resentment, Cynara remained untouched for hundreds of years and
appreciated by no one. Zeus hoped no one would attempt to search beyond the tough fibrous thorny leaves to
find her sweet, sensuous heart. Contrary to his belief, and due to humans’ curiosity and hunger, they did attempt
to taste this striking, thorny vegetable only to be rewarded with its delicious flavour.
R & J Mazza Pty Ltd
Globe Artichoke History
It makes you wonder who first discovered that globe artichokes were edible! Thousands of years
ago globe artichokes had very prickly exteriors but with human's curiosity, determination and
courage, they dared to risk tasting these thorny, armoured vegetables only to discover their
sweet protected hearts! Even though food historians cannot pinpoint precisely where or when
this mysterious plant originated, humans have been treating themselves to globe artichokes for
over 3000 years. As one of the oldest cultivated vegetables, in ancient history the globe
artichoke was considered quite exotic.
Globe artichokes are thought to have originated in North Africa beginning as a thorny, wild
plant, and believed to have been grown for consummation in Sicily, Italy around 500 BC. There
is mention of the globe artichoke in Roman literature as far back as 77AD. The Italians not
only developed a passion for the artichoke, but also consumed it as a digestive aid, mainly
used by the wealthy as it was not readily available.
Globe artichokes were highly prized by the Egyptians, and regarded as a health food. Again the
globe artichoke was available only to the rich who used it to help with liver function after
excessive eating and drinking. Over the centuries, the artichoke became a favourite enjoyed in
all European countries, the Middle East, Turkey and Lebanon.
Catherine de’ Medicis introduced globe artichokes to the French
Born in Florence, Italy, as Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de' Medici (April 1519 to January 1589), she was daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici and of
Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne. The Medici family was at the time the de facto rulers of Florence. Initially they were bankers who came to great
wealth and power by supplying capital to the monarchies of Europe for their business ventures.
Although Catherine's father was made Duke of Urbino by his uncle Pope Leo X, she was still regarded to be from commoner origins despite their
wealth. However, Catherine's mother, the Countess of Boulogne, was from one of the most prominent and ancient French noble families which was an
advantage to her future marriage. Unfortunately both her parents died when Catherine was a baby and therefore she was left to be raised by relatives
and later under the care of her uncle Pope Leo X. When the Pope passed away she was cared by other relatives before being placed in various convents.
King Henry II of France was a prize catch for Catherine. In 1533, at the age of 14, she married Henry, second son of King Francis I and Queen Claude of
France, and changing her name to the French version, Catherine de Médicis, she became Queen consort of France. When the 14 year old arrived in
France, she brought with her the Florentine cuisine; including an entourage of cooks, pastry chefs, vegetables and herbs. She promoted many unique
flavours and introduced the French to a variety of vegetables including the globe artichoke. Many Italian foods that seem to have originated in France
actually came with Catherine and were introduced by her as Modern French cuisine.
As Catherine was born in Florence, she was known throughout France as la Florentine. She loved spinach so much that any French dish which
incorporated spinach was called a La Florentine. Catherine scandalized French society with her addiction to globe artichokes, which had the reputation
of being aphrodisiacs. She also encouraged her entourage to eat artichokes. By the end of Catherine's reign, artichokes had become one of the most
popular French vegetables.
Herbal Teas and Extracts
The globe artichoke has a long
history of traditional use in herbal
medicine. Vietnam, China and
many other Asian countries have
been using artichokes as delicious
herbal teas for many centuries.
Globe artichoke leaves are also
used for juices, dried extracts and
dyes. Globe artichoke herbal tea is
known by the Asians to relieve
many bodily disorders. Today,
Vietnam still produces very high
quality artichoke tea!
In the 1600's the Spanish and French settlers introduced globe artichokes to the United States, but again, they were not widely
accepted. During the early 1920's, great waves of Italians migrated to the United States where they discovered California had a
climate similar to Sicily, favourable to growing artichokes, and so began the cultivation of the globe artichoke in the United States.
There is evidence that the globe artichokes were present in Australia in the 1800s. The Cook and the Curator - Eat Your History from
Sydney Living Museums, have an excellent blog regarding the history of artichokes. They found that they were advertised for sale in
the Sydney Markets as early as 1830. They are also featured in recipe books in the late 1800s. The Sydney Morning Herald described
them as a ‘well known vegetable to some of us, to others an utterly strange one’ in 1915. A recipe also appeared in the Sydney Morning
Herald on November 15, 1905 named ‘A French was to Dress Crown Artichokes'.
For centuries the Europeans have used artichokes as a natural substitute to rennet to help coagulate milk and manufacture cheese.
Cheese produced with artichokes results in a unique style of soft cheese with a pleasant slightly bitter flavour. Cheeses produced
with artichokes are still very popular and enjoyed in the Mediterranean, mainly in Spain and Portugal.
The artichoke made its way to
England, but was not popular.
Instead the artichoke plants were
appreciated in English gardens as
ornamental plants. Many
horticulturists used these
stunning silvery-grey fern like
plants to enhance their gardens,
only to be rewarded by their
spectacular purple-hued flowers.