Riotorto Artichoke Festival
Sagra del Carciofo Morellino, Riotorto May 1st and 2nd, 2010
Just outside the non-descript Tuscan town of Riotorto, in a public pine forest called La Pineta, is the biggest hoedown for artichokes on the Italian peninsula. At edition number 41 it is one of the oldest artichoke celebrations anywhere in the world. It will usually be held over a week and always reach critical mass on the weekend closest to the holiday May 1st. Riotorto produces it’s own variety of the Morellino artichoke, which is the most common of Tuscan artichokes.
In a large clearing amongst the pines is an area with, what could best be described as, very large tin sheds. These sheds are purpose built for special cultural events like this one, put on by the local commune (council), and are fitted out with massive kitchens, bars, kiosks acting as antipasto bars. On the night Alice and I went to this sagra, there were dozens of people staffing these kitchens, busily preparing great artichoke dishes for the hundreds of diners who could sit at the large and long dining tables under the pines. All of us who sat down to eat had our own personal waiter assigned to us. Except for the notable presence of the energetic, elderly Franca, these waitpeople were no older than 14 and somehow this whole scenario evaded provoking any notions of child labour because the kids were so enthusiastic in their service.
Over 41 years they have refined this event and tailored it to give the people what they want and apparently the people want ball-room and line dancing to go with their artichoke fetish. So if you enjoy making some seriously choreographed moves on the dance floor to music played by cheesy cover bands, and love artichokes, this event is right up your alley.
The extensive menu had enough dishes that you could count them on two hands (if you had nine fingers). The better ones were the pasta courses served with what resembled a pesto of minced artichokes. Quite dense in consistency, it’d be the perfect thing to make in bulk to store and pull out to whack onto a quick pasta. Of course they had the fried artichoke, as does everywhere else we’ve been to, except their batter was a little elaborate with, flour, eggs and milk. Stuffed ravioli with ricotta and artichokes, which I never go for because I think they are always too light-on in actual artichoke content. Roast beef and roast pork with an artichoke sauce used as a dressing, a little odd.
The winner for me on the night was the Carciofi trifolati, so simple.
Gently heat a couple of cloves of garlic and a little chilli in some extra virgin olive oil until the garlic has lightly browned.
Remove the garlic.
Drain the artichokes and place them in the pan with the oil and fry off on a medium heat for 10 minutes.
Add some chopped or torn mint leaves to the artichokes and cook a further 5 minutes.
Add a small ladleful of water to the artichokes and allow to evapourate with the lid on.
Repeat this if necessary until the artichokes are tender.
Season to taste and serve as an antipasto or a side dish.