May 29, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Catherine, Gaettani, and artichokes

By |2021-03-27T00:40:44+01:00March 26th, 2021|"Suzanne's Taste"|
The artichoke, "il carciofo" (pronounced car-CHOFO) to you.

entlemen may prefer blondes, 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 might explain Catherine’s reputation as a woman about town.

This 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, which 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 in turn, being a bit of a gourmet, 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 on the digestion. She then threw them on the grill which is where one cooked almost everything, yet still found them somewhat chewy and so she steamed them with herbs and salt and cried, “Eureka” or some Medieval Roman equivalent. A gourmet with business sense, this enterprising woman took them to the town market and sold every artichoke within minutes. She must have given out free samples and recipes, knowing she would quickly create a following for her tempting thistles. 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.

She steamed the artichokes with herbs and salt and cried, “Eureka” or some Medieval Roman equivalent.

Italian legend differs in that Horace wrote passionate poetry to a ladylove 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, giving rise to 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 among the towns, so did its ardent admirers increase. To protect their supply of precious carciofi, wealthy Romans forbade the masses to buy or eat artichokes. Pliny points out articulately, with disdain for the class system prevalent at the time, that artichokes were discovered by asses and were still being conspicuously consumed by them.

The Romans believed that artichokes were a great stimulant for food and wine, not that the energetic Romans needed stimulants; they did mix wine and artichokes, however, unlike today’s gourmets, and found that artichokes sweetened the tastebuds. 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 symbol leftover from history of a truly reputable Roman table.

It was for new spring artichokes and whatever else happened along the way that we started from Rome on a day’s outing, or gita. The April air was heavy with the scent 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 casereccio — 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 people you will rarely meet in the cities: mozzarella makers, strawberry farmers, artichoke growers, olive oil pressers — in other words, the people who make the world go round.

The road to Cori from Giulianello along the way is marked as a scenic route on the map; on a clear day you can see all the way from Cori across the mysterious Pontine Marshes to the Mediterranean. Cori, one of the oldest towns in Italy, is worth a quick stop for the view, to visit the Temple of Hercules and to see the church which is really built from two separate churches, one dating from the Middle Ages and one from the 15th century.

From Cori the road runs south to Doganella, and here are the first silvery fields of artichokes. We were well on the right path and had plenty of time to stop at the magical gardens of Ninfa to see them in all their morning glory. The Volci, a warmongering tribe who often gave the Romans a good run for their lire, built their cities on the Pontine Marshes, unaware that the mosquitoes living with them would one day bring the malaria that would wipe the people out, and it is over these ruins that the magnificent gardens of Ninfa spread like a Renaissance tapestry. The wealthy Caetani family placed themselves in 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 chamomile 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 live 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 smells 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 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 thirty foot high cliffs made of huge rough-cut stones. Who had built them? How had they been constructed with stones weighing tons in a time when there were no cranes? These Cyclopian 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.

However, it is difficult to sightsee when your stomach is rumbling. Along the road from Ninfa to Norma, the small town next to the ruins of Norba, delicious smells from the local trattorie wafted through open 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 (you do not cut a bella figura if you eat before one or one thirty), and as we approached the edge of the site, found the whole immense valley we had traveled spread out to the sea. The tombs near us rose in soft mounds as far we could see and were open and unmarked except for a soft edge of new grass around the holes. I dropped a rock in one and waited some seconds for the eerie splash when it finally hit. 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 farm houses dotting the lush valley below. Sheep with their new spring babies 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 and does not seem to have the heavy effect that stronger wines do. In short, one can drink a lot of it without repercussions. We were quickly brought what the wedding guests were eating, bowls of penne al carciofo, short pasta with a pale green sauce of cream, artichokes, nutmeg, and Parmesan.

This perfect plate of pasta was worth the whole 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 those in addition to the first course. Our waiter, obviously pleased with our enthusiasm, suggested that we try artichokes alla griglia, tender young hearts turned slowly over the coals until done, then sprinkled with new olive oil and Parmesan, and what could we say?

The April air was heavy with the scent of pale lavender and white wisteria, newly cut meadows and clover.

As the lively wedding couple danced by our table, we raised our glasses with a wish for a long and joyful life full of young artichokes and old wine; we then paid our $27 bill (including wine and service) leaving the change for the waiter as is the Italian custom. Another custom, our own, is that after lunch, anywhere, on any outing, it’s time for a nap. 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 toward 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 else, 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; history is not always made up of earth-shaking events. 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 you to the Volcian village of Sezze where a yearly Passion play is given in the town’s famous outdoor theatre. We drove southeast from Sezze on the main road for 6 km., then turned toward Priverno to see its lovely cathedral dating from 1283, 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, even if it is after lunch. The building changed hands from the Cistercians (1145) to the Trappists in 1795. The Carthusians took over in 1826, and although there were once great archives and an extensive library, all was lost or moved to other colonies. The Abbey, however, remains magnificent and timeless, its heavy walls the color of honey and terra cotta pots of geraniums set upon the steps of the caretaker’s cottage. Thomas Aquinas’s room is ghostly and barren. In the stillness, one does not dare to speak. A shaft of sunlight from a single window falls slanting across the austere cot, and his simple writing desk is empty except for the ghosts of his great unfinished three-part Summa Theologica, the sum of all learning. He had been summoned from Naples by Gregory X to the General Council of Lyon when he was suddenly taken ill and had to stop at Fossanova, a lonely yet lovely place to die.

The best way home is straight and fast on that part of the Appian Way called the fettuccia because it is like a ribbon, leading back to Rome. Norma, Norba, 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.


Gita:  Rome-Albano-Velletri-Cori-Ninfa-Norba-Norma-Sermoneta-Sezze-Fossanova

Time: 4-6 hours

Total distance: 200 km (1 km = .625 m) or 125 round trip

Ninfa: Open Apr.- Oct., first Sat. and Sun. of month, 9AM – 1PM, 2:30 – 8PM

Food:  Almost any trattoria (after 1PM!) that smells of woodsmoke and grilling sausages

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.