In Season: Artichokes are more popular than ever

Published: Wednesday, May. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 23, 2012 - 9:37 am

For artichoke lovers, life is sweet with a slightly nutty flavor.

We're in the midst of an abundant artichoke season with fat, round green globes rolling into supermarkets.

"This is peak season, and Northern California is truly at the epicenter of artichoke consumption," said Kori Tuggle of Ocean Mist Farms. "Everybody is so, so close. Northern California consumers buy the freshest and best artichokes available. Raley's, Save Mart, Safeway; all the big markets really take advantage of this and promote the crop."

Located in Castroville, Ocean Mist is North America's largest artichoke grower. Artichokes love the seaside climate. Actually large thistles that can reach 6 feet across, the perennial plants soak up the cool Pacific breezes and relish summer fog.

"About 99.9 percent of the nation's crop comes from California," added Tuggle, who travels the nation promoting artichokes. "And most of it is grown in or around Castroville. We're spoiled."

Farm stands also offer plentiful artichokes. Besides the familiar green globes, they sell heirloom varieties with flatter petals or odd colors.

"We have a lot of foodies in California," said author Claire Splan. "People want different varieties. They want to try vegetables they've never seen before."

Splan's new book, "California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening" (Cool Springs Press, $22.99, 256 pages), features artichokes as a possible landscape plant for Central Valley gardeners. If allowed to open, the artichokes turn into giant puffy purple flowers.

"They want a certain amount of heat, but they also like it to cool down at night," Splan said. "That's why they're so happy growing along the coast. They're not something you see growing in the Midwest.

"They're so delicious," she added. "And they're fun to eat."

Big growers are in tune with the heirloom trend, too.

"We're experimenting with purple and red artichokes, too," Tuggle said. "But the green globe is still No. 1. It's the chefs' favorite."

Artichoke plants – which live 10 to 15 years – produce two crops a year, one in late spring, a smaller second harvest in fall. All are harvested by hand and packed in the fields.

"They're expensive to grow," Tuggle noted. "They're a perennial crop; they're in the ground not producing most of the year. And where they grow best is beachside land; that's expensive, too."

To help meet year-round demand and cut some costs, growers now are planting "seed" artichokes as an annual to augment the perennial variety. The annual artichokes produce one summer crop in a matter of months. They also can be grown in winter in Southern California's desert regions.

America's appetite for artichokes keeps growing. Ocean Mist's online Artichoke Aficionado Club has more than 35,000 members.

"It's a unique vegetable," Tuggle said. "In California, we all know artichokes, but more people are becoming familiar with it nationwide.

"They're almost trendy," she added. "I don't know if we have Martha Stewart to thank, but you see them everywhere. They're beautiful."

Tuggle's job in part is to demystify artichokes. She shows people how to pick out the best ones ("squeeze it; it should squeak") and cook them (try roasting in foil or grilled).

Ocean Mists grows dozens of other vegetables, too, but nothing with the mystique of artichokes.

"Romaine lettuce actually is our largest crop," Tuggle said, "but I don't have to teach people how to eat romaine."

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Read more articles by Debbie Arrington

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