Autumn offers the food lover many delights. The arrival of the game season provides a welcome respite from the rest of the year, when chicken is more or less the only fowl available. Farmers' markets and some supermarkets these days stock a large variety of squashes and pumpkins, many of which are so strange-looking that it seems remarkable they should have originated on this planet. There are pears, grapes and plenty of varieties of apple. But for me, the best thing by far about autumn is the chance to tuck into an artichoke.
I am not talking about Jerusalem artichokes here; I am talking about globes. The two vegetables share a name only by dint of an annoying quirk of history. As Jane Grigson recounts in her Vegetable Book, their linguistic conjoining dates from 1605, when Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec, described one of the North American root vegetables he had come across on his travels as having "the taste of artichokes". The name stuck and has been a source of confusion ever since. Strangely enough, the two vegetables' flavours are not even that similar.
At various points, the Jerusalem artichoke has been savagely maligned and deemed unfit for human consumption. This is unfair, because it is a decent vegetable, and particularly good in soups. But to place it in the same category as the globe artichoke, as de Champlain did, is preposterous.
Globe artichokes really are in a league of their own. John Evelyn was spot on when he called the artichoke the "noble thistle". That artichokes are thistles merely reinforces their splendour, for it is all the more remarkable that among the varieties of so ignoble a plant there should exist such a delectable specimen. Both in taste and texture, the artichoke is unlike any other ingredient. This is why many chefs consider it to be one of those rare, ultra-luxurious ingredients, belonging on a plate only with the likes of lobster and foie gras.
At the same time, artichokes are rather sad objects. Eating them requires so much effort that many people don't bother. For the amount of flesh they yield, they are indeed hard work - more so, perhaps, than any other vegetable. But what a mistake to overlook them completely and how wrong to think that it is not worth taking the trouble!
The whole point of artichokes is that they offer up their pleasures slowly, and reward the virtues of patience and perseverance. You could say that they are an object lesson in delayed gratification.
Artichokes should be cooked in acidulated and salted water for between 30 and 40 minutes, depending on their size. Once this has been done, the leaves can be removed. These yield a tiny morsel of flesh at the bottom, which people often don't bother with, but it is a mistake to dispense with this entirely. Either scrape the flesh off the leaves and turn it into a puree, or suck it off the leaf directly. It should be noted that not all the leaves are equally tasty. The best are those in the middle; the ones on the outside are tough, whereas those close to the heart are thin and watery.
Once the leaves have been peeled off, remove the layer of tough fibrous matter that surrounds the heart, and which is called, appropriately enough, the "choke". Only then are you in a position to tackle the heart - the small disc of flesh at the top of the stalk which in Jane Grigson's day was, rather alarmingly, called the "bottom".
The various countries have their own methods of eating artichokes. The Italians don't go in for eating the individual leaves. Either they deep-fry whole the small purple artichokes that are common in Italy; or, having removed the leaves, they stew the hearts in olive oil and garlic. The French method, which is my favourite, is the best known. The leaves are peeled off individually and dipped in melted butter with lemon juice, salt and pepper. The heart, when one finally reaches it, is cut up with a knife and fork, and also dipped in the melted butter.
As cheap and simple meals go, I don't believe there's anything that could possibly improve upon it.