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Fat free, cholesterol free, sweet and aromatic, artichokes are another fundamental part of Italian cousine. Food Historians believe that the plant originated in Southern Europe around the Mediterranean Sea. Some say in Sicily, others in Tunisia (Carthage), nobody knows. We know that artichokes were cultivated in Sicily in the first century and, at that time, Greeks and Romans called it cynara. They thought artichokes had afrodisiac powers so they gave it the name of a girl Jupiter seduced and later transformed into an artichoke.

Le Roy Ladurie wrote in his book Les Paysans de Languedoc:

"The blossom of the thistle, improved by the Arabs, passed from Naples to Florence in 1466, carried by Filippo Strozzi. Towards 1480 it is noticed in Venice, as a curiosity. But very soon veers towards the northwest...Artichoke beds are mentioned in Avignon by the notaries from 1532 onward; from the principle [sic] towns they spread into the hinterlands...appearing as carchofas at Cavaillon in 1541, at Chateauneuf du Pape in 1553, at Orange in 1554. The local name remains carchofas, from the Italian carciofo...They are very small, the size of a hen's egg...and are still considered a luxury, a vaguely aphrodisiac tidbit that one preserved in sugar syrup."

Artichokes were brought to the United States in the 19th century: to Louisiana by French immigrants, to California by Spanish immigrants, to New York by Italian immigrants. Today, the main European producers are Italy (40% of the world’s production), Spain, and France, and approximately 80% of artichokes grown in the US come from California.

Fresh artichokes are dark green, have tight leaves and they are better than chemically made vitamins and supplements: a study done by the USDA found that they have more antioxidants than any other vegetable and they ranked seventh in a study of the antioxidant levels of 1,000 different foods. Some of the powerful antioxidants in artichokes are quercertin, rutin, anthocyanins, cynarin, luteolin, and silymarin. They induce apoptosis (cell death) and reduce cell proliferation in many different forms of cancer, including prostate cancer, and leukemia. An Italian study found that a diet rich in the flavanoids present in artichokes reduces the risk of breast cancer. They raise good cholesterol (HDL) and lower bad cholesterol (LDL), increase bile flow, regenerate liver tissue and help the digestive system.






Artichoke field in Bretagne, near Morlaix. Photo taken during a trip to France, August 2005.

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