It is a verity of
culinary history that a local cuisine is based on things which were indigenous
to the local environment. But traditional foods can be influenced by foreign
imports. People don't always realise that tomatoes, peppers and other features
of modern Italian cuisine began their history as foods far away (in those
cases the Americas). Only since the Middle Ages have certain crops been
introduced beyond their places of origin.
The cardoon has done less wandering than its better-known cousin, the more aristocratic artichoke.
Yet thistles similar to the cardoon grow wild around the world - the thistle flower is the traditional
symbol of Scotland. Sicily just happens to be one of the few places where the stalks
of certain types of thistle are consumed. Here the dish is called carduna,
from the Latin term carduus (which is the plant's principal genus).
The Italian word cardo is more generic and does not refer to a specific
scientific family; in North America certain types of thistle are similar
to the cardoon and some are the same varieties, having been introduced into
Mexico and California by the Spaniards. Thistles have prickly stems and
leaves and rounded heads of purple, violet or pinkish flowers. They are
related to certain kinds of daisies.
The cardoon, "artichoke thistle" or "musk thistle,"
is in the asteraceae family. Its stalks are similar to those of the
artichoke - another thistle in the asteraceae
family indigenous to Sicily - and have a similar taste and texture. Only
in the eighteenth century were these plants identified scientifically, though
they had obviously been consumed for millennia. The cardoon is mentioned
anciently in Egypt and Ethiopia, and makes an appearance in both Greek and
The cardoon most often consumed in Sicily is the cynara cardunculus,
which is indeed closely related to the artichoke, cynara scolymus.
The leaves and stalks of the two plants are nearly identical; it's the flowers that are different. Artichokes
are harvested in late autumn and again in early spring, but the cardoon
stalk is usually picked once annually, beginning in early December.
Bearing a vague resemblance to celery, the cardoon stalk is high in potassium,
low in sodium, and is a good source of B vitamins, folate, magnesium, calcium
and iron. For all its nutritional benefit and delicious taste, the cardoon
enjoys little more than a cult following among gourmands and aficionados
beyond the Mediterranean. It seems to be regarded as the "poor cousin"
of the more famous artichoke.
Genuine cardoons don't grow everywhere. In North America and parts of
northern Europe it may be possible to substitute certain wild thistle stalks
for cardoons. These may be tougher and therefore require longer boiling
during preparation - for 15 or 20 minutes. They may also be thinner, yet probably not much
more bitter than the true cardoon. Yes, cardoon stalks are rather bitter.
Preparation for cooking begins with cutting the long stalks and removing
some of the tough external fibres. Next the stalks are boiled (with a little
salt) in a large pot for at least ten minutes. This is the cooking stage,
and if you prefer you can eat the stalks this way, but in Sicily the carduna
is rarely served after having been merely boiled. Instead, it is then lightly battered
(dipped in whole egg, dredged through flour and then perhaps rolled in bread crumbs with a bit of pepper and
finely grated cheese) and quickly fried. A heavy, pasty batter should not be used, and the cardoons should not be deep fried,
but quickly pan fried in a mixture of corn oil (perhaps 70%) and refined olive oil.
Carduna is served simply, without dressings or dips. Tasting it with
a bit of horseradish or wasabi sauce, or even Dijon mustard, while not grounds
for trial on heresy charges, is less than traditional. Sicilians prefer
- if anything - a generous splash of fresh lemon juice.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.