entlemen may prefer blonds, but at least one blond prefers artichokes. When Fillipo Strozzi introduced artichokes to the ruling Medici family, Catherine became addicted to the strange cousin of the cardoon. At a large dinner party, she puffed up like a frog after having stuffed herself with so many artichokes that the banquet guests stopped eating to watch the show, fearing she might pop at any moment. This was not Catherine’s fate, as she had other artichokes to fry.
Artichokes are believed to be one of the more tasty and effective aphrodisiacs, right up there with oysters and caviar, which also might explain Catherine’s reputation as a woman about town.
The Medici may have popularized the exotic flower in Italy and France, but the artichoke existed long before her banquet tables were adorned by dishes of thistle. Although our English word artichoke implies heart and choke, the choke being at the heart of the flower, the accepted root of the word seems to be the Arabic al-kharshofa or al-karshuf. It then proceeds etymologically through the old Latin articoctus, “coctus” being cardoon, through various French varieties such as artichou and artichaud, arriving in Italy as carciofo, a word used also to describe someone acting pretty silly, such as someone dipping carciofo leaves in mayonnaise instead of having them in the proper way, alla romana, with mint and garlic.
Driving through silvery green fields of carciofi from Albano to the Abbey of Fossanova south of Rome, one can easily imagine how these exotic plants first attracted attention. Legend has it that an Arab farmer with the requisite beautiful daughter owned a large field full of what were then called thistles. His donkey munched daily on the thistle flowers which aroused curiosity in the daughter, who started munching them herself and was intrigued by their nutty taste.
A creative cook, she tried tossing the raw artichokes with salt and oil, but found them hard to digest. She grilled them but found them chewy. Then she tried steaming with herbs and salt. This led to “Eureka,” or some Medieval Roman equivalent. A gourmet with business sense, she took them to the town market and sold all in her keep within minutes. The wise (and don’t forget, beautiful) daughter then dressed up in her finest, visited the local prince with an offering of the best of her gems, and they lived happy, productive and amorous lives well into their eighties.
Italian legend differs in that Horace wrote passionate poetry to a lady love named Cynara, after an Aegean island called Zinari. The island was named after yet another lovely nymph whose blinding beauty so enraged one of the more powerful gods of the time that he turned her into a thistle, but even in this prickly form, she managed to spread herself through Asia, Egypt and Greece, becoming the botanical name Cynara (Zinari) scolymus. Horace wrote, in loose translation, “I was always true to you, Cynara, in my fashion, always true to you in my way.”
As the artichoke became known, its admirers increased. To protect their supply of precious carciofi, wealthy Romans forbade the masses to buy or eat artichokes. With disdain for the class system prevalent at the time, Pliny wrote that artichokes were discovered by asses and were still being conspicuously consumed by them.
The Romans believed that artichokes sweetened taste buds and stimulated an appreciation of food and wine. During the growing season, Carciofi alla Romana, tender baby artichokes cooked with white wine, garlic, olive oil and mint, adorn the antipasti tables of most good trattorie, a reminder of what a truly reputable Roman table was once like.
IT WAS FOR LOVE of artichokes and adventure that we started from Rome on a day’s outing, or gita. The air was heavy with the scents of pale lavender and white wisteria, newly cut meadows and clover. We were equipped with a bottle of Fiuggi water and no expectations. The Appian Way led south from Rome through the little town of Albano where, on the main street, we bought housewives bread (pane casareccio — always ask for it in restaurants as they often keep it in the kitchen for special clients) to stave off mid-morning hunger.
At Velletri, we turned east and south on the small road to Cori. In general, we stick to small back roads (white roads on the map) because there is little traffic and you meet the non-urban population: mozzarella makers, strawberry farmers, artichoke growers, olive oil pressers — the people who matter.
The road that leads to Cori from Giulianello is marked as a scenic route; on a clear day you can see from Cori across the mysterious Pontine marshes to the Mediterranean. Among the oldest towns in Italy, Cori is worth a quick stop to visit the Temple of Hercules and to see the church that is really built from two churches: one dates from the Middle Ages, the other from the 15th century.
From Cori the road runs south to Doganella where you find the first silvery fields of artichokes. We were on the right path with time to stop at the magical gardens of Ninfa by morning. The Volci, a war-mongering tribe who often gave the Romans a good run for their dominance, built cities on the Pontine Marshes. They were unaware that the mosquitoes living with them would one day bring the malaria that would wipe them out. It is over these ruins that the magnificent Gardens of Ninfa spread like a Renaissance tapestry.
The weathy Caetani family placed themselves in the history books by designing intricate gardens, streams and meadows that would be open to the public on the first Saturday and Sunday of the month. Visitors can wander for hours over carpets of camomile and clover, along paths lined with hundreds of kinds of flowers and shrubs, all labeled with their botanical names. As you walk across stone bridges over gently running brooks filled with watercress and ferns, you suddenly find yourself at the beginning of a maze of tall bamboo.
As is our devilish habit, we broke away from the guided tour to explore the bamboo forest and the ruins of the village that protrude up through various parts of the garden, making up vivid tales of the Volci as we went and wondering what it must have been like to survive in those terrifying times. Perhaps the Volcian ruins at nearby Norba would tell us more about these feisty people.
We were suddenly starving. Hunger pains happen at precise intervals in Italy: morning (the smell of cappuccino), mid-morning (fresh mozzarella in food shop windows), lunchtime, teatime and dinner. We stopped to ask a particularly well-fed farmer where to eat. He motioned up the mountain toward Norma (the small town next to the ruins of Norba) and gave us directions to a trattoria just left of the town on the way to the ruins.
Looking up, we saw what appeared to be 10-meter high cliffs made of huge rough-cut stones. Who had built them? How had they been constructed with stones weighting tons in a time when there were no cranes? These Cyclopean walls still surround the unexcavated ruins and tombs of the Volci settlement; no one knows how on earth these towering white walls were built, and it is a mystery to me why this area has not been touched by archeologists.
It’s tough to sightsee when your stomach is rumbling. Along the road from Ninfa to Norma, delicious smells from the local trattorie wafted through our car windows. I imagined boisterous cooks putting little flattened chickens on the grill, seasoned with rosemary and basted with pungent olive oil, or sausages flavored with anise and juniper, or long, skinny lamb chops, known in Italy as abbacchio alla scottadito, finger burners. And of course every trattoria would have the treasured carciofi, cooked in olive oil or deep-fried with crispy leaves and served with wedges of Sicilian lemons.
We stopped at the peaceful ruins to avoid being the first diners at the trattoria (no bella figura before 1:30), and as we approached the edge of the site, saw the immense valley we had just traveled spread out to the sea. The tombs near us spread out in soft mounds and were open and unmarked except for a soft edge of new grass around the holes. I dropped a stone in one and waited some seconds for the eerie splash. We almost lost our footing and dropped into several of the grass-covered cavities. After that we kept our distance and explored the soft meadows for artifacts, marveling at the sweep of glittering artichoke fields and pale, sienna-colored farmhouses dotting the lush valley below.
Sheep and their offspring wandered through the ruins, stopping every now and then to gaze curiously at us and beg for bread. I always carry bread on an outing because my chosen trattoria may be further than expected or even closed, and because once, at Hadrian’s villa, I was trapped, empty-handed, for at least 15 minutes in a gaggle of hungry, honking geese.
The restaurant near the ruins was overflowing with a boisterous wedding party (is there any other?) Everyone was animated and in high spirits from good food and the light, local wine that can only be found in Italy. Most house wine is only 10 or 11 percent; so one can drink a lot with few repercussions. We were quickly brought what the wedding guests were eating, bowls of penne ai carciofi, and short pasta with a pale green sauce of cream, artichokes, nutmeg and Parmesan.
This perfect plate of pasta was worth the trip. After the pasta, a platter of flattened, deep-fried golden artichokes, carciofi alla Giudia (literally artichokes cooked in the Jewish manner), appeared out of nowhere, and we managed to polish off those in addition to the first course. Pleased with our enthusiasm, our waiter invited us to try artichokes alla griglia, tender young hearts turned slowly over coals and sprinkled with new olive oil and Parmesan. What could we say?
As the lively wedding couple danced by our table, we toasted to a long and joyful life full of young artichokes and old wine. We then paid our €27 bill (including wine and service) leaving the rest for the waiter, the Italian custom. Another custom, our own, is that after lunch, anywhere, on any outing, it’s nap time. No museums, no churches, no ruins — unless it is a shady patch of sweet grass near an ancient mound on which to spread a quilt and dream of Volcians or the next trattoria.
A half-hour later we set off from Norma through the tiny medieval town of Sermoneta with its massive fortress, where Lucrezia Borgia spent several nights. A large group of school children kept us entertained until the castle opened after lunch; in the country everyone talks to everyone so they practiced their English and asked questions about Michael Jackson while we tried to find out why Lucrezia had stopped here. Evidently she was just visiting friends. You can see where she slept (in an unusually small bed but definitely a room with a view), and you can play hide and seek in the myriad halls and secret passages of the spectacular Caetani family castle.
From Sermoneta, a scenic road leads to the Volcian village of Sezze which hosts an annual passion play in its famous outdoor theatre. We drove southeast from Sezze on the main road for six kilometers, then turned toward Priverno to see its lovely cathedral, and finally descended into the lush valley of artichokes and olives on the last leg of our gita, to Fossanova and the exquisite abbey where Thomas Aquinas died in 1274.
Fossanova is well worth the trip. The building changed hands from the Cistertians (1145) to the Trappists in 1795. Carthusians took over in 1826, and though there were once great archives and an extensive library, all was lost or moved. But the abbey remains magnificent, its heavy walls the color of honey. Terracotta pots with geraniums sit on the steps of the caretaker’s cottage. Thomas Aquinas’ room is ghostly and barren, daring visitors to speak. A shaft of sunlight from a single window slants across the austere cot. His simple writing desk is empty. This is where Aquinas wrote the great (but unfinished) three-part “Summa Theologica.” Called from Naples by Pope Gregory X to the General Council of Lyon, he was taken ill and paused at Fossanova. It was a lonely yet lovely place to die.
The best way back to Rome is straight and fast on that strectch of the Appian Way called the fettuccia because it resembles a ribbon. Norma, Norba, and Ninfa are enough for a day’s gita, and if you need help remembering the trio, think of that other glamorous blonde who was queen of the artichoke festival in Castroville many years ago. Her name was Norma Jean.
Rome-Albano-Velletri-Cori-Ninfa-Norba-Norma-Sermoneta-Sezze-Fossanova. Total distance: 200 kilometers. Time by car: 4-6 hours. Food: Almost any trattoria (after 1:30 p.m.) that smells of wood smoke and grilling sausages Note: Ninfa gardens open April through October, first weekend and third Sunday of the month, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., 2:30-8 p.m.