Saturday, May 19, 2007


My friend in Campagnano was ideally situated for the artichoke festival. This time, instead of our driving into Rome to find a parking place, the Romans drove to Campagnano and were directed by the police to park outside of town. We walked a couple of hundred yards down the Via Roma, which had been set up for a soapbox derby, to a big field, at the back of which men were stoking fires, made with piles of dried stalks from last year’s vines, preparing beds of glowing embers on enormous grills. It was a little like a county fair, except that the local wine arrived in big plastic tanks on the back of a pickup truck decorated with gorse, or broom, or some yellow-flowering vegetation, and was served free (“vino gratis”), by children. “Rosso o bianco?” they asked eagerly, before turning on the tap at the end of a pipe connected to the vat and filling a plastic cup to the brim.

Campagnano is famous for its artichokes, grown in the Valle del Baccano, and destined mostly for the market in Paris. I had bought two artichokes on my first day: beautiful firm purple-green globes with long, long stems, laid crosswise in a crate, for fifty cents apiece (euro cents). Roy trimmed them and stuffed them with garlic, wild mint, and pepper, and boiled them for fifteen minutes. He used the artichoke water to cook the pasta while he scraped the flesh off the leaves and chopped the stems and the hearts to make a sauce with olive oil, garlic (a clove), and cream: pasta ai carciofi campagnanesi. I used to think there was something magical about white wine with artichokes, but when they’re cooked with garlic and olive oil, instead of dipped in butter and lemon, red wine is fine. We finished up with an amaro from the Abruzzi.

At the scarciofata—which is Campagnano dialect for "artichoke feast," or “scarf carciofi”—the artichokes, trimmed and dressed with oil, garlic, and mint, are grilled in the field. They’re served with bread (3 euros) or with bread and sausage (5 euros). I started with one sausage and two artichokes. The scarciofata would not be so much fun to attend alone, so I will describe the company. Our host was Roy, an American living in Campagnano. First to arrive was Pietro, a Roman visiting from Brazil. Then Paige and Grant, a music teacher from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and an English graphic designer. Then Guido, a Roman who is on Italian radio, with his daughter Carlotta (at an age when her smile reveals gaps of missing teeth) and his friend Gianni and their friend Rosie (a Venetian). And finally Tony, an Irishman who came to Italy to become Pope Patrick I (but something went wrong between him and the Vatican), and his Irish-Italian son Enda, currently of Toronto. It rained on and off, and we lifted up our picnic table and squeezed it in between two others under a tarp. Smoke billowed from the grills, where men used pairs of special pointed sticks to set the artichokes in the embers and pluck them out when they were done. The two local rival bands played (one Communist, one Catholic), and there were majorettes and rock bands and other regional entertainments: dancers; huge hoops and a boat powered by men pumping pedals; cymbals and wooden clappers on the ends of gigantic, garishly painted upright wooden tongs; clowns in inflatable suits toppling into the crowd, like those punching bags that you can’t knock over. I got back in line for three more artichokes. I ate one, gave one to Guido, and took the last one home. (I ate it later, cold, with a glass of Cynar, the artichoke aperitif. The outermost leaves were caramelized.) “I like artichokes,” I said, digging the choke out to get to the heart. “We noticed,” Guido said.

When it was over, when the last of Roy’s guests had hiked to their cars and gone back to Rome or on to Umbria or over to Lake Bracciano, I went out for a look around the town as it disassembled itself on a Sunday night. There were still a few artichokes on the grills at the picnic grounds; a man plucked one out, brushed the burnt leaves off, and sucked the heart out from the bottom. Farther into town, someone was loading crates of artichokes into a truck. “How much?” I asked, holding out a five-euro bill. I went back to Roy’s with a crate of two dozen artichokes on my shoulder.

We did our best to eat all those artichokes, Roy stewing them up with garlic and breadcrumbs. In the end, I was forced to trim some to fit a size-8 shoe, bag them in plastic, and smuggle them in my luggage to England (where they were eaten California style, with sparkling white wine). We ate out a few times in Campagnano. Once I had risotto ai carciofi, and on my last night, at a restaurant called Benigni (it has prosecco on tap: the Italians have some really good ideas), I had ravioli ai carciofi, which was sublime, the platonic ideal of an artichoke-and-pasta dish. I learned to rotate my right hand in small clockwise circles to indicate pleasure beyond belief. I was wearing what I think of as my artichoke outfit: brown pants and a loose mint-green shirt with splashes of red wine.

Is there such a thing as artichoke poisoning? It seemed to me, on the plane home, when I licked my lips that I had something in my system, strong as an antibiotic. I was pickled with red wine and artichokes.

(With thanks to Mr. Zimmerman.)


erieblue said...

Wow. It sounds like food immersion. I love the idea of Prosecco on tap.

lucette said...

This solidifies my idea of Italy as heaven: I certainly want to go there when I die (if not before).
Is that the Pietro of yore?

Scott said...

This is about as "true italian" as the experience -- for we Americans -- will get. Thank you! Great description of the whole day. Artichokes are vastly underrated in this country. My mouth waters.

MJN/NYC said...

Thanks, Scott. If there were an artichoke festival in the U.S. (which there might be, in California), they would have an Artichoke Queen, or a Miss Artichoke. I heard there is a restaurant out there where you can get a five-course (or something) meal, with artichokes in every course. Don't know what dessert would be, but I'd try it (artichoke gelato?).

Lucette, yes, that is Pietro, on a fund-raising tour of Europe for his school in Bahia. They don't have artichokes in Brazil, though he said he had found a species of red banana that tastes like artichoke. HIs last stop in Europe will be Amsterdam, for a big opening of a D'Artagnan show at the Italian Institute there. I think I have to go ...