This post is part of the UK Herbarium webring blog party, which has kindly been opened up to Commonwealth bloggers too (I love this because many of the introduced plants here in New Zealand come from the UK). Apologies to the Brits though, who won’t have access to artichokes for 6 months. The theme of the blog party is My Favourite Bitter.

Bitters are a class of herb with a bitter taste and distinct actions on the digestive tract, especially the liver and gallbladder. Amongst other things, bitter stimulates production of bile and assists the liver and gallbladder to function well (see further reading at the end of this post for a fuller explanation of bitters).

There is a long history of the use of bitters as medicine – Swedish Bitters would be the most well known example of historical use that survives today. There is also a tradition of eating bitters as part of the everyday diet. Modern peoples lose out here, because we are so un-attuned to the bitter taste that apart from coffee, and maybe dark chocolate (which is tempered substantially by sugar), bitter is often a shunned experience.

Yet bitters are essential to good health, even more so nowadays when we have so many refined foods in our diets that are hard on the body. I also think our incredibly easy access to sugar skews our tastes away from enjoying bitter, but fortunately the more bitter you eat the better it tastes. I want to emphasise here that eating bitters becomes a pleasurable experience, it’s not something you have to force yourself to do.

You don’t have to eat bitter foods in huge amounts – the value of bitter foods can be gained from small amounts, especially if eaten regularly. And depending on the plant in question a lot of bitter can be counter productive (herbally many bitters can be cooling to the body or drying, which doesn’t suit everyone, and strong bitters can be hard on sensitive constitutions). It’s better to eat a small dandelion leaf daily in season than try eating a cup of cooked dandelion greens in one go that you have to force down and that makes you avoid bitters for the rest of the year!

If you’re not used to bitters then start small and find ways to introduce them into your diet that feel good.

One traditional way of eating bitters is by including them in salads. Another way is to eat seasonal vegetables and herbs that have some bitter in them. My favourite is the globe artichoke, which is a great way to learn about the bitter taste because it is such delicious eat.

The leaf of the whole plant is used as a strong bitter in herbal medicine but fortunately the vegetable itself is a more subtle bitter and very edible.

Normally artichokes surface before Christmas (southern hemisphere) but I didn’t find any this year until I went grocery shopping today. Globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus aka Cynara scolymus) are a thistle and no relation of the artichokes that are a root vegetable. They’re customary fare in parts of Europe, especially Italy and France. They grow easily in NZ, and often you see them on the edge of people’s properties, where they have been planted as a showy border plant (they’re big and spectacular when flowering). I find most people are really happy to let you pick them.

The edible part is the flower bud. You want buds that look fresh (not drying out on the tips too much) and haven’t started to open. This is a medium sized bud. Some varieties have sharper points on the scales.

There are quite a few different varieties, some yummier than others – you’ve just got to find this out by experience, but generally the ones in the shops are a sure thing, the ones on the side of the road vary more. Usually the issue is about the work to edible part ratio (explained in a minute).

Some people get put off artichokes because there is some work involved in getting to the edible bits. But the preparation and pulling apart of the artichoke is part of the whole experience. I’m going to write about the easiest way I know, because I’m basically a peasant foodie and am happy to eat well simply. There are lots more complex ways of preparing and eating artichokes (including raw), so once hooked you can explore those.

First take the artichoke and cut off any stalk close-ish to the bud. It’s nice to have a bit of stalk, but too much and the bud won’t stand up in the bowl. You can cook the extra stalk as well if it is still fresh, just put it in the pot with the bud. I like to bang the bud face down on a chopping board a few times to open up the ‘scales’. I then put the bud face down in a pot with a small amount of hot water (face down because the heat goes up into the inside of the bud). Bring to the simmer and let it cook with the lid on for 10 or 15 minutes. Test to see if it is done by using a sharp knife down through the centre near the stalk. It should slide in easily.

Take the bud out and let any excess water drain out from the inside. From this point on you need the following:

2 bowls
a sharp knife
a serviette
olive oil

Put the bud upright in the bowl. Open up the scales a bit and pour in some olive oil. Let this sit for awhile, so it cools enough to be handled and so the olive oil starts to take up the flavour. If you leave the bud to sit for a long time, the oil will get really tasty (and artichoke is fine to eat cold).

Once cool, start to pull off the scales, starting from the outside at the bottom. Each scale has a knob of flesh on it which is edible. You can dip this in the olive oil pooling at the bottom of the bowl, and then use your teeth to scrap off the fleshy bit. Put the empty scale in your spare bowl. A serviette is essential here, this is very hands on eating.

(some varieties of artichoke don’t have as much flesh on the leaves, and so it seems not worth the bother. But I find even the thin layer of some bud scales worth it because of the flavour and response in my body – a qualitative rather than quantitative experience).

One thing you can do here is taste the bud closer to the remaining stalk – there will be some stringy bits that pull off with the scale – and you can eat the stalk itself. There is a pleasant bitter taste here, which blends well with the more pungent sweet taste of the fleshy bit. If you get a sense of this bitter here you will pick it up in the rest of the choke too.

Continue eating the scales until most of them are gone. Now you are getting to the choke heart. You will start to notice two things. At the top the scales become thinner and sharper.

Just discard those, and underneath you will find a turret of densely packed hairs. These are completely inedible unless the bud is very very young. Use the sharp knife to cut through through the base of the hairy layer and discard it. You may need to cut the heart in half or quarters to get all of this off.

The top half still has hairs on it, the bottom is clean:

Now you are at the pinnacle of artichoke eating. You can take each half or quarter, dip in oil and eat whole.

Here is the true artichoke flavour and texture, the reason why people go to all the bother – a phenomenal mix of deep sweet, bitter and pungent*. By this stage I usually notice a pleasurable relaxation in my liver and solar plexus area, and complex tastes in my mouth and palate that last well after the last bite.

*although pungent isn’t the right word and I’m struggling to describe the taste. You find it to a lesser degree in related plants such as burdock and variegated thistle.

Because the eating of artichokes can be a bit of a ritual, they make a great food to share with a group of people. And because it’s a bitter, it serves well as an appetiser, stimulating appetite and digestion before the main course. Enjoy!

Further reading:

For a fancier look at how to prepare and eat artichokes, see Julie Biuso’s blogpost.

Great Lakes folk herbalist Jim Macdonald has an comprehensive article (PDF) on the importance and benefits of bitters as food and medicine.

More on bitters from the blog party.