We started growing cardoons, here in the walled garden, just last year. It started as an experiment driven by curiosity, and a desire for a wider variety of interesting plants in the garden – especially productive plants. We certainly love the flower heads! (We learned the knack of cooking and eating the sepals … and the heads make a beautiful room decoration.)
It was when, last autumn, we first tried adding chunks of cardoon stem to a lamb casserole that we realized how useful in the kitchen and how delicious this plant can be.
Just a few months later, in November last year, we made our first visit to Navarra (an autonomous province in NE Spain) – to see our daughter Catherine and her family – including our brand new grandson, Enaut. Exploring the lanes and groves around San Martin de Unx, we soon found the village’s allotments – along a narrow valley leading up towards Ujué. As it was already almost winter, the allotments were largely bare – except for some hardy vegetables. We were intrigued as to what the tall plants were – with thick stems tied up – like celery on steroids! Catherine’s partner Ion was with us: he said they were el cardo – the cardoon! No wonder we didn’t recognise them : they didn’t have flower heads at that time of year, of course, but the chief difference was that these cardoons were 6ft / 2m tall – twice the height of ours – and stems twice as thick, too!
Our cardoon comparison resumed in the supermarket, where we discovered that cardoon is as much a staple of Navarrese cuisine as carrots or parsnips are in the UK : there you can buy cardoon stems fresh in season, and at any time of year in large jars or cans, the various brands and jar/can sizes occupying a lot of shelf-space! When we bought them we noticed about their cardoons – compared to ours, was how the stems were so light-coloured and tender. The secret to that, Catherine explained, was the blanching.
This year, in our own garden back in Uist, it became clear that there was no way that we could leave it until November to tie up and blanch the stems, as the autumn storms would destroy the plant long before then! So, we’re making our first experiment of blanching our own cardoon stems by tying them up in late summer, wrapping them in hessian, with a length of steel rebar (which we use during the summer for our tomato plants) to prevent them being snapped like matchsticks in the wind. We’re unsure how this is going to work, as there’s nothing in UK gardening books that helps us much with Hebridean conditions. We’ll try opening up one of these before we set off for Navarra at the beginning of October. We’ll leave some to try when we get back at the beginning of December.