Feast of Paestum Artichokes

Festa del Carciofo di Paestum 22nd-25th April, 2010

Paestum is an ancient Greek coastal town about 80km south of Naples with a surrounding area partially devoted to the cultivation of their Carciofo di Paestum (Paestum Artichokes). Most of the fields we occasionally saw as we drove into town were full of plump purple buds floating above a mass of green foliage.

Floating purple artichoke buds ready for the picking.

In the last few years an annual artichoke celebration has started in earnest and it has been aptly named; Festa del Carciofo. It is held just inland from Paestum in the town of Capaccio and it wasn’t clear what else Capaccio has to offer apart from a football field which was over run by and artichoke party. We went on the opening night and I felt that it probably needed some time to warm up and really get into full swing because it certainly looked like they were ready for a big weekend.

Ready for a big weekend.

This was a success in getting the community together and providing a time and place to celebrate and exhibit the local talent and produce. The artichokes are prime quality but when celebrating food, I have come to understand that many cooks actually enhance the broth. In this case I thought it would have been nice to have many, different, smaller scale stalls preparing dishes they specialize in, rather that leaving a full menu in the hands of one catering outfit, which is often the case. If the caterers are not on fire on the night, then the resulting artichoke dishes could just turn out mediocre. Sagre (pl) are usually much richer experiences with lots of different culinary contributions but this festa was narrow in culinary vision leaving the potential of these artichokes a little let down.

The predominant method to cook the Paestum artichokes is to roast them above (but not touching) hot coals but on the night, the complete menu included, artichoke tarts, artichoke lasagne, artichoke parmigiana, penne with an artichoke sauce and everybody’s favorite, the deep fried artichokes. In a separate area, artichoke pizza’s were available spread with a blended artichoke pureé and chopped artichoke pieces. These could have been great but unfortunately the pastry let them down and the cheese was of inferior choice. I think Frank the pizza maker should decide whether to continue writing songs and singing about pizzas or focus on making better tasting pizzas. Evidently the combination of the two was not  working as Frank’s singing and music was up there with your worst karaoke nightmares.

The Paestum artichoke is a variant on the Romanesco and carries the IGP logo which “is given to those agricultural products and foodstuffs for which a given quality, reputation or other characteristics depending on their geographical origin, and production, processing and / or preparation takes place in a determianed geographical area”. So it is the very specific local conditions of climate and soil type which make them their own unique varietal. quoted from http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indicazione_geografica_protetta

A common complaint by farmers this year is that the winter of 09/10 saw an excessive amount of rainfall. This stunted the growth of the artichoke plants, which meant the season was delayed with it’s harvesting. One benefit, though, from the stunted growth is that many mature artichokes have very little spiky fur to be concerned with and in this case, the Paestum artichoke generally had a soft and edible hairless core. They are ideal in all the above dishes as they are very fleshy but my favourite for the Romanesco is to have it as whole as possible and eat it leaf by leaf because it has lots to offer.

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