The edible cardoon is Cynara cardunculus and it is very closely related to the globe artichoke, though less well known. To be honest, it falls into the novelty class of vegetables, to be grown by those with plenty of space and a sense of curiosity though it is a sufficiently handsome plant to justify a place in the summer border. The flower is a good indication that it is a relative of the thistle – all belong to the asteracae family. Cardoon is native to the Mediterranean and North Africa and in the wild is a great deal pricklier than modern cultivated selections. Its homeland and its silver toned foliage both give a hint that it is a plant adapted to hotter, drier conditions though we have found it exists quite happily on the margins of the vegetable garden. It would benefit from being staked in our wetter climate. It is a perennial and reaches over 1.5m high and about a metre wide so it needs space.
Cardoon is a traditional vegetable in its homeland areas. Most commonly eaten are the leaf stems which are harvested in winter and early spring, before the plant sets flowers. These look a bit like celery and are always cooked before eating. The young flower buds are also eaten in southern Italy. I will admit that we have only tried eating it once and we parboiled it. It was not an exciting experience though it was perfectly acceptable in an anonymous green sort of way. I will try again this winter, using it braised and in soups. Its value may lie in giving a fresh alternative in late winter when other greens are sparse. It is also a source of natural, vegetarian rennet and some artisan cheese makers in this country have returned to this traditional usage.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.