"Yes, I might have a few tales about artichokes. You've come to the right place."I'm sitting across from Giuseppe Turi, who is chuckling cryptically at my mention of the distinctively shaped vegetable, known for its sweet heart and prickly leaves. Turi has—to put it lightly—an avid enthusiasm for artichokes.Every year for the last ten years, he has run a special artichoke menu at Enoteca Turi, the Italian restaurant he co-owns in London's Belgravia. It coincides with the fortnight when artichokes are at their peak in Italy, which this year spanned from April 24 to May 6.
But before we can get onto what exactly it is that makes the thistle-like vegetable so great, Turi delivers a short history lesson.
"There are wonderful stories about artichokes," he begins. "The Greeks have an anecdote about why wild artichokes in the old days were full of thorns. People liked artichokes but they knew they had to peel all the thorny bits before they got to the hearts."He continues: "In Greek mythology, Zeus got a liking for a woman called Cynara [also the artichoke's botanical name] and wanted to seduce her, but she rejected him. He got cross and transformed her into an artichoke with a prickly outside and sweet heart inside. So, to get to the heart, one has to go through the pain of getting through the thorny leaves."But it wasn't a penchant for Classics that inspired Turi's annual celebration of the artichoke."I have memories of artichoke from my childhood. For us, artichokes were always a special thing, especially in southern Italy when the first artichoke that would come around November," he explains. "There was a tradition that the first artichoke of the season would be given to someone who wasn't well or a bit elderly, as a get well gesture, because the vegetable is rich in iron and antioxidants."He adds: "It's my favourite vegetable, if you call it a vegetable. I think it's more of a flower! The plants are in full bloom now so we always do the artichoke fortnight at this time of the year. Our chef puts artichokes in every dish—from the negroni aperitif to dessert."
An artichoke negroni and dessert? This I have to see.
Restaurant manager Cesare Papagna collects the cocktail ingredients from the bar and I'm relieved to find out that there's no chance of accidentally swallowing any leaves or hearts while sipping on my drink. A bitter artichoke liqueur called Cynar, which replaces the more traditional Campari, is added to gin and vermouth to make the negroni.As Papagna measures out equal parts of each spirit and adds ice and orange peel, Turi tells me: "Cynar comes from Milan. It's made from the artichoke leaves because the cynarin, which is the active ingredient in the artichoke, is mostly in the leaves than the flower. It gives a more herbal taste to the drink."
To find out what's on the menu for dessert, we head downstairs to the kitchen."Every region in Italy has a different way of cooking artichokes. We explore that. The chef is very creative," says Turi, proudly. "There's a dish with tender, sweet artichoke heart and egg which is a classic combination. It's also cooked here alla Romagna—deep-fried in olive oil so the leaves become crispy. And we serve a wonderful Sicilian-style braised vegetable stew with artichokes, peas, broad beans, and spring onions."Turi continues: "There's a huge variety of artichokes but we use the three main types. The violetta comes from Puglia and Sicily. The romanesco which comes in March and because it's got a long growing season, when it's ready, it's huge. Then you've got the spinoso which generally comes from Sardinia and this time of the year from Liguria. It's more flavoursome but they have white, nasty leaves which really sting! But the taste is wonderful. It's the Cynara!"
In the kitchen, I find Naples-native head chef Francesco Sodano prepping for the custard-like zabaione pudding.
As he starts whisking egg yolks and sugar, I ask how many artichokes the kitchen gets through during the artichoke fortnight. Like a cheeky son indulging Turi's artichoke obsession, he answers, "Too many!" before adding: "It's around 400 in total."Thankfully, the only prickly leaves involved with the pudding are those that have been steeped with alcohol. The bottle of Cynar makes another appearance.
"Usually you'd make a zabaione with marsala wine," explains Sodano. "But for the special menu, we use Cynar. It's added to the sugar and egg yolks and the mixture is whipped over boiling water until it thickens."The eggy, foamy dessert—a kind of boozy custard—is layered in a glass with dried fruits and a sweet crumble.Back upstairs, I ask Turi whether the restaurant will stop serving artichokes now the season in Italy has come to an end.
"You find artichokes all year round here because you start getting the ones from Brittany and Normandy in France which will last all summer," he says. "It's a good artichoke but it's not as flavoursome as the ones you get from Italy, especially not as good as the spinoso variety."And, when the first Italian artichokes do appear again, does he still keep up the tradition of giving the first crop to someone who's poorly?
"No, we don't keep up that tradition now! But when I was younger, we'd always have a big feast with all the family when the first artichokes arrived," says Turi. "And there's sort of a family feel here—that's what everyone says when they come here. I like that."I bid Turi, manager Papagna, and chef Sodano goodbye, and shout ciao to the other members of staff, who give me a wave. It could be the Cynar talking, but I do leave feeling, just a little bit, like part of the family.