When I was growing up in Yorkshire, all those years ago, there were many things one read about in cookbooks but did not find in the local greengrocer’s shop. I was 25, living in France and pregnant when I met my first globe artichoke. I had seen the tinned ones, artificially preserved and nothing like these fresh ones. My husband brought them home from market, and I recall wondering at the time how on earth one cooked them and, looking at the huge and scaly thistle buds, why anyone would choose to do so.
My husband, an excellent cook himself, took pity on my ignorance, explaining that young buds could be eaten whole, but the bigger, older ones took a bit more work. He prepared them in his favourite fashion… boiled till tender and served with a whipped vinaigrette. He demonstrated how to eat them, pulling off the individual leaves and drawing them through the teeth to get the flesh. Eventually I found the hairy ‘choke’ and wondered what to do next, it looked so unpalatable. But one only has to remove that too in order to get to the heart. The treasures of the artichoke are well hidden.
It was a fiddly, messy business really, just for a vegetable, leaving in its wake a pile of half-emptied leaves, a mass of spiny fibres and fingers and napkins covered in oil. But oh it was worth it!
I am feeling a bit like an artichoke. A lot like one, really, as the stripping process that began a few years or so ago keeps on pulling away my leaves, getting ever closer to exposing the inner heart of me.
It began with the ‘things’.. the material things I clung to but, actually, did not really need. Then the relationships that, in spite of determined efforts, went so far downhill they fell off the bottom. It continues, stripping back the veneer of illusion, the cherished masks I have hidden behind, largely from myself. And that is the thing, isn’t it? We wear the masks we want others to see.. but if we were truly happy with who we are there would be no need to project an ‘image’ .. we could simply be ourselves.
Many of us pride ourselves on being just that, but take it from me, there are masks even we ourselves cannot see, close as a second skin… until they are stripped from us. Then, like a worrisome scab being peeled away, the relief is palpable.
It has not been a pleasant process, having my leaves pulled off and chewed. And there are layer upon layer of them, going deeper and deeper towards the heart. But then, with each leaf, there comes also the sweet aftertaste and the closer you get to the centre, the more tender they become.
There have been many lessons about attachment, and each time I have thought there was nothing left, I realised there was more, and they were closer still. So close, sometimes, I had not even realised they could be pulled off. Yet, apparently they can, and the bittersweet aftertaste is both more poignant and all the sweeter when the leaf is placed to the side of the plate and the napkin lifted to remove the debris from the Gourmet’s lips.
But this is not a tale of woe! There have been so many positive things in this process, so much joyous change, as if the Diner flirted with the food, brandishing leaves in companionable conversation, or biting with perfect teeth, seductively in the candle-glow. Yet after each bite, another leaf is inevitably emptied, surrendering its treasure to the palate.
I have a feeling we are getting closer to the hairy bits that protect the innermost heart. I remember distinctly what a messy job it was pulling them away, making sure the last traces were removed. I can’t say I am looking forward to having my protective shell pulled apart to expose the inner core. But I suppose it is far better than being sliced in two, which is the other serving option!
Of course, the sole purpose of a lightly boiled artichoke, served with a delicate sauce, is to be a delight for the Diner, giving up its heart as a final treasure. It may not be the easiest of things to eat, the simplest of quests, but it would not be fulfilling its purpose if it fought the Diner tooth and nail, withholding its core at the last.
When the plate is taken back to the kitchen, I hope the Chef can glance at the debris from which all the goodness has been extracted and smile at a dish well-made, utterly demolished and thoroughly enjoyed.