Source: Tony Fawcett , Weekly Times Farm Magazine – 3 November 2010
GLOBE artichokes arrived in Australia with the First Fleet but, to get to the tender heart of this North African thistle, talk to Italian-born Rita Farranda. There’s little Rita doesn’t know about the delectable and sadly under-valued vegetable.
For more than four decades, she and her husband Tony, have grown globe artichokes on the rich, flat, red plains of Werribee South, just short of Port Phillip Bay, where they work about 12 hectares.
Artichoke “headquarters” was started by Tony’s father in the early 1950s, after he was released from the World War 11 internment camp at Tatura.
While Rita and Tony are from the same region in Italy, they met amid the Werribee artichokes (and other vegetables) when her father worked on his father’s farm.
Rarely a day goes by they don’t eat artichokes (“we love them”), often tender young ones plucked from row upon row of thistles and consumed raw, marinated, in salads or, the most scrumptious of all, prepared by Rita schnitzel-style.
With children Connie, Giuseppe, Marcello and Salvatore, the pair supplies agents for distribution far and wide – but it’s at Rita’s farmers’ markets (she attends up to seven a month) where the greatest action takes place.
Regular customers flock to snap up her super-fresh artichokes, often picked just hours earlier. Wander the rows of metre-high artichokes with petite Rita and she practically disappears from view amid the grey-green foliage.
As she tells it, globe artichokes are one of the most goodness-packed vegetables on the planet, low-calorie yet loaded with health-giving attributes, including an ability to detoxify the liver.
She sells fresh artichokes (prices vary from $1.50 to $2.50 each, depending on the season) and marinated artichoke hearts in jars, along with a range of vegies including lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli.
The best artichokes, she says, are those with compact, tight heads and fresh-looking leaves. To be avoided are those whose leaves have become dry, curled and open.
While globe artichokes have been slow to take off in Australia, Rita says the market is now snowballing thanks to farmers’ markets and word-of-mouth raves by keen foodies, those who have tasted them properly prepared.
In the past, too many Australians gained their first taste of globe artichokes from a tin (even the thought of that brings a pained expression to Rita’s face) or via out-of-date produce
Artichokes –Cynara scolymus-, can be grown as annuals or perennials and demand plentiful irrigation and fertilising (Rita and Tony ply theirs with chook manure).
Two main types (a green and purple European variety and an all-green American variety) are grown in Australia. They are generally propagated from seed or by division (digging away suckets at the side of the plant). Harvest peak is late winter to mid-spring.
The part that is eaten comprises the unopened flower buds and fleshy base of the leaves. Prepare by discarding the tough outer leaves to get to the light-coloured, tender leaves inside. Trim off the top and low growth around stem. Cut in half and remove the furry choke above the heart.
Stop discolouring by dipping artichoke in lemon juice and water throughout procedure. About 90 per cent of Australia’s globe artichokes are grown in Werribee South, where the first commercial crops were produced mid last century by Italian and Macedonian farmers. Artichokes thrive here because of the rich soils, coastal climate and long, cool growing season.