Velletri Artichokes alla Matticella
Carciofi alla Matticella, Velletri, 24th-25th April, 2010
On the outskirts of greater Rome and not too far from the wine growing district of Frascati are the hills known as Colli Albani. This is the home of the amazingly beautiful lakes of Lago Albano, Lago Nemi and the historic town of Velletri that hosts a unique little feast, over one weekend in late April, called Festa del Carciofo alla Matticella, which unlike other sagre or feasts, celebrates only one particular artichoke recipe, alla Matticella. We were lucky to witness this one as the rain had just cleared to make way for the outdoor cooking to proceed. A great night for the visitors to Velletri and certainly one I would love to revisit.
The dish takes it name from bundles of vine twigs, trimmed the previous year and kept to dry over the winter months. One of these bundles is called a matticella and the artichokes are places directly onto these twigs as they smoulder as embers. The recipe is so specific to this area that it calls for some ingredients that can usually only be found in or around Lazio. Firstly the Romanesco artichokes are essential for this dish and secondly the use of the wild herb, mentuccia or calamint, which is difficult to find commercially outside of this region. Imperative is the use of fresh garlic, chopped finely with the green stem, salt and as one old man sitting outside the bar flanking the piazza pointed out, the most important ingredient for this dish is good quality extra virgin olive oil. Obviously the matticelle are from the area too so this recipe is completely territorial and the locals claim anything similar made elsewhere will always be a variation on the original.
The artichokes are trimmed of most of their stem before being placed directly onto the embers. The outer leaves remain attached as they will take most of the direct heat and will allow the inside to cook protected from the intense heat of the embers. The artichoke leaves are spread apart slightly to make room for the tritto (chopped mixture) of, mentuccia, fresh garlic and salt. Most of the tritto is reserved to stuff into the centre of the artichoke. Then they are placed and dug into the embers about 1 inch as the embers gently crackle away. The leaves should be left wide enough to generously drizzle some extra virgin olive oil from time to time while they cook.
The artichokes need to be twisted and dug in occasionally to ensure they are cooking evenly. They will take about 40 minutes to cook through and one way to judge if they are ready is by the colour of the leaf tips. They will turn from a raw green to a dark olive or brown colour. The fail-safe way to work out if they are cooked is to try plucking out an inner leaf. If it comes away easily, you can taste is to see that is cooked and moist. If more moisture is needed, drizzle in some more olive oil.
Taking them straight off the embers, they may look impossible to eat and you’ll discover that cutlery is useless. Here you’ll need have a few napkins ready and be prepared to get your hands dirty while stripping away each leaf of it’s flesh, between your teeth. Working your way to the middle, one leaf after another, each being more rewarding that than the last. Removing any extra charcoal from the base, it’s now up to you how you will savour the heart.