Cardoons are common in the Mediterranean basin and have always been eaten. The Ancient Greeks knew this plant by the name kaktos. The Romans were especially fond of them.
They were widely grown in the Middle Ages and were a popular vegetable.
They were introduced to the Swiss canton of Geneva in the 17th century by Protestant farmers escaping persecution after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France.
They have since spread to the Rhône Valley, which has become the home of the cardoon in France.
The stalks should be creamy white, firm, long, and fleshy. A slightly feathery appearance is a sign of freshness. The leaves have a high oxalate content and are not eaten.
Cardoons stalks are sold fresh in bunches.
They are also found blanched, chopped into pieces, and frozen, or in cans or jars.
Careful peeling is required to remove any leaves, spines, or stringy parts. The stalks are then wiped with a damp cloth to remove the fine fuzz that covers them.
After washing and cutting, it is necessary to blanch them in water and lemon juice before cooking so as to eliminate their bitterness and to soften them.
They are then cooked in salted boiling water. They can be prepared au gratin, à la crème, with meat jus, sautéed, and accompanied with a white sauce or béchamel.
One of the great classics of Lyonnais cuisine is cardoons with bone marrow (cardons à la moelle).
Cardoon stalks can keep for one or two weeks in the refrigerator or cool room in a perforated plastic bag, with their bases wrapped in paper towels, to prevent them from drying out.
They keep longer if covered with sand in a cool room.
Cardoons have few calories. They are high in potassium and are a source of calcium.
Part of their carbohydrate content is made up of inulin, a carbohydrate humans cannot digest owing to our lack of an enzyme that metabolizes it, that ferments in the colon. This may make them difficult to digest.
There are several different varieties of cardoons, all of them quite similar: full white Inerme cardoon, red-stemmed cardoon, prickly Tours cardoon, Vaulx-en-Velin cardoon, Geneva cardoon, Tunisian cardoon, rouge d’Alger cardoon.
Cardoons are harvested in fall and winter.
French cardoon production is limited and mainly found in the Rhône-Alpes region. It is also grown in Morocco, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Argentina. It is little heard of in North America.
The Geneva cardoon (cardon épineux argenté de Plainpalais) has PDO status. It has a particularly fine flavor.
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