Every year I try to grow something that I’ve never grown before, and whilst the exotic and oriental fill many pages of the seed catalogues, it’s sometimes nice to consider plants that have a bit of history at home! Last year I opted for two favourites from the Victorian era: sea kale and cardoons.
Now, for many, the Victorian era is held up as an example of how we should live our lives. It’s a puritan’s dream, a time when manners and etiquette and family values came before all. However, in truth it was a time when drinking to excess was commonplace, as was swallowing anything you could get your hands on such as Laudanum, cannabis, coca and general hallucinogenics. Then, following the invention of the hypodermic needle, morphine, heroin and cocaine abuse became fashionable.
Children were either labourers or prostitutes, and when you were done either setting them to work or screwing them, you could pretty much do another bunch of things without fear of legal repercussions. If you wanted to go on a murder spree and had a few shillings, you’d get away with it, because forensics simply didn’t exist.
For some, the Victorian era was heaven on earth, for others it was hell. However, whether you’d spent all day climbing up a chimney, or having some off-his-head member of the middle class climbing up your back-pipe, you came home to two vegetables that just don’t seem to figure in the veg section of our modern Waitrose or Sainsburys (other crap supermarkets are available).
Sea kale I will address another day. Right now, I want to concentrate on the majestic cardoon.
The cardoon is a relative of the globe artichoke and the thistle. Having never grown thistles from seed, I can only comment on the similarities to globe artichokes. The seeds are very similar, both germinate with ease and are grown until robustly established in pots. Once planted out they do seem to be relatively resistant to all the world can throw at them, but bastarding slugs will have a go at young plants.
Like the globe artichoke, the cardoon is a perennial. That said, some people treat them like an annual. No, I don’t know why either. A small clue might lie in the way they were traditionally prepared!
The cardoon produces heads, much as the thistle and globe artichoke does. However, if you eat a cardoon head it will lacerate your tongue, tear your throat, pierce your stomach lining and do all manner of damage to your anus as it passes through. The heads are fiercely sharp and hard. No, with the cardoon you eat the leaf stems. These need blanching, otherwise they are extremely bitter. When blanched and cooked correctly, they are reminiscent of an artichoke/asparagus combination, with a slight aniseed background. They go well with pork, but what doesn’t?
Traditionally, gardeners would dig up the whole plant, chuck it in a hole, and cover with a thick layer of hay for a week or four. Modern thinking is to wrap the stems in newspaper and tie tightly for the same period. During the first year cardoons put most of their effort into growing roots, and in their second year they sprout up, hitting six to eight feet in height. Even if you don’t eat them (and why the hell would you not eat them?) they are stunning looking. The leaves are spikey and architectural, with a silvery grey tone. They need plenty of room, because they like to get a spread on!
During the winter, I just laid down a mulch of hay to protect the roots from frost, and they all sailed through without problems. This year I will be eating them, and also seeing whether I can leave enough of each plant there to get a third year out of them.
Cardoons. Grow them. Really.