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The English language recognizes two completely different and unrelated artichokes, but in truth the Jerusalem artichoke, grown for its knobbly edible tubers, is a seventeenth-century usurper of the name originally owned by the globe artichoke. This is a plant of the thistle family perhaps unique in gastronomy in that the parts that are eaten are the base of the flower head and its fleshy bracts. Before the flower opens these form a purplish-green scaly sphere which inspired the name globe artichoke (coined in the mid-nineteenth century to distinguish it from the Jerusalem artichoke). The word artichoke itself was borrowed in the sixteenth century from northern Italian articiocco. This was an alteration of an earlier arcicioffo, which came via Old Spanish alcarchofa from Arabic al-kharshōf, literally ‘the artichoke’. The earliest English version was artechock; the ending -choke arose by association with choke (a term subsequently applied from the eighteenth century to the inedible mass of immature florets inside the artichoke head).

The artichoke first became fashionable in the courts of Europe in the sixteenth century—Catherine de Medici is recorded as giving herself severe stomach problems in 1575 by overindulging in artichokes—and its reputation as an aristocrat of the dinner table has persisted since then (perhaps, as Jane Grigson suggests in her Vegetable Book (1978), because it is so fiddly to eat that it cannot be bolted unthinkingly).

Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink.

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