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Noble thistles

"The thistle is a prince. Let any man that has an eye for beauty take a view of the whole plant, and where will he see a more expressive grace and symmetry; and where is there a more kingly flower?" Henry Ward Beecher

I was really rather pleased with this photograph that I took a couple of days ago, just around the corner with my iPhone, so I started wondering how I could use it for a blog post. The photograph was my beginning, the quote at the top of the page is the end - in the sense of it being the last thing I found - although, as it turns out, it is actually most appropriate for the beginning of a ramble around thistles, some of which is actually to do with food.

"A kingly flower" A quote from the17th century gardener, John Evelyn, by the way. Let's begin there - for it sort of is where I began. I knew it was the national emblem of Scotland, whose food I had written about recently, but had no idea why. So I looked it up.

The legend goes that back in the 13th century the Norse king Haakon planned a surprise invasion on the west coast of Scotland at night. The surprise required the invaders to remove their shoes and creep across the land so that the sleeping Scots would not hear them. However, one of them trod on a thistle and cried out in pain, thus waking the defending force who defeated them in battle. And so the thistle was chosen as an emblem - the earliest national flower in the world so they say. There is also another Scottish kingly reference to the thistle when King James IV of Scotland married Henry VIII's sister Margaret - a marriage of 'the thistle and the rose.' Poems were written.

Even in death the thistle is beautiful - which is just an opportunity for me to show off two more photographs.

Can you eat thistles?

By which I mean ordinary everyday thistles. Which brings me back to foraging which I was into a few days ago. It turns out that yes, you can eat thistles, but I think it's rather extreme foraging, with one writer saying it's:

"a lot of work for little reward". About which, more later.

The picture on the left is from a website called Wild Harvest. The lady writing it was a bit of an enthusiast, and, just quietly a bit of a nut I think, because at one point she said that "I have been known to eat them covered with earth raw, just pulled out  the ground."

The problem is all those prickles and also the sheer toughness of it all. For the stems and the leaves you have to peel off the skin and cut off all those prickles before you can even think of what to do with them - eat raw with dips, stir fry, etc. Another foraging site called Forager Chef was a bit more realistic, saying:

"Thistle leaves are the last part of the plant I would eat as they're a pain to clean, unless you're in a survival situation." Forager Chef

He or she did show you how to do it though. The roots seemed to be the easiest thing - no prickles - although apparently pretty hard to dig out. As to the flowers - well here are the two opposing views:

"Pull apart the purple flowers and add to almond shortbread mix.  Bake and serve decorated towards the end of baking with petals pressed in to the surface." Wild Harvest

"Some describe eating thistle flower blossoms (the purple flower buds) and thistle seeds. I think they're hardly worth mentioning for the work involved." Forager Chef


But donkeys eat them don't they? How come they don't mind the prickles, because I certainly saw a brief 19th century newspaper article that said you shouldn't give thistles to your animals because it would damage their internal organs? But we all know that Eeyore loved them.

So I looked it up and yes indeed donkeys do eat thistles:

"To the question as to why donkeys eat thistles, one simple answer is that they simply love them. We also have our sets of favorite food items, so then why can’t your donkey have one for itself?" Donkey On Farm

I suppose that doesn't tell us why, but it's rather nicely in the spirit of Eeyore and his thistle patch, which was home to him. The ultimate comfort food. And when I think about it, how thought provoking of A.A. Milne to suggest that one man's comfort - his special place - was another man's extreme discomfort - as shown in E.H. Shepherd's lovely drawing. Each to his own. Or:

"It is good for a man to eat thistles, and to remember that he is an ass." E.S. Dallas (19th century food writer)


Somehow or other I then moved to cardoons, which, it seems to me are somewhere between a thistle and an artichoke. It may have just come up in my search on eating thistles.

I have never come across cardoons, but was vaguely aware of them without really knowing much about them. Well I am here to tell you that they are particularly big in Italy, or as Jane Grigson says: "You could say that cardoons follow the anchovy belt of the Mediterranean." and certainly that: "It has never caught on in this country". 'This country' being Britain of course. Or maybe here too, in spite of the Italian influence on our eating habits.

I saw photographs of British gardening guru Monty Don rhapsodising about them in the garden, but others are a little less enthusiastic:

"A close relative to the globe artichoke, the cardoon looks a bit like celery on steroids, growing as tall as six feet. It has thorny, silver-grey leaves and pompom-like purple blossoms. It’s not exactly a friendly-looking vegetable and it probably won’t make you salivate at first sight." Food and Style

However, others have different ideas. Cardoons are like artichoke without the hard work says Palisa Anderson of The Guardian and we all know that gourmets love artichokes. (I will come to artichokes in a minute.)

Mind you even here, amongst the enthusiasts there seems to be some disagreement as to whether hard work is involved because La Cucina Italiana, which offers Ten ways with cardoons (this is Cardoon Parmigiana), says:

"If you love artichokes, you have to try cardoons. But be warned: Their green leaves with silvery highlights require special treatment. Not because they’re thorny – but because they feature a hardened texture, making them especially difficult to cook." La Cucina Italiana

I suspect that Jane Grigson is not such a fan, although she does provide a half dozen or so recipes. I get the feeling, however, that she thinks them a little bland, although:

"It is much appreciated as a vehicle for delicious flavours such as anchovy and Parmesan cheese ... The stalks are also delicious when cooked and finished with butter, cream, Parmesan and taste better than celery which has too pronounced a flavour for such mild-tasting richness and small piquancy." Jane Grigson


But she adores artichokes, describing them as:

"the vegetable expression of civilised living, of the long view, of increasing delight by anticipation and crescendo ... It has no place in the troll's world of instant gratification." Jane Grigson

Noble indeed and she is not alone in praising the artichoke to the skies, which is something I have never understood.

Yes as an artistic object they are sublime but for me they have no interest, because of the difficulty of preparing and eating them and for their ultimately disappointingly bland even soapy taste. Maybe I haven't ever had a good one - they say you should grow your own. And maybe you should even eat them raw, as Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall describes when he discovered a French family pulling the leaves from small, young artichokes, smearing them with butter and eating them:

"I watched the delight with which they began stripping off the raw, delicate leaves and smearing the base of each one with a little salty butter before nibbling away contentedly. Of course, I joined in ... There is a slight astringency, but also a delicious, raw nuttiness that you don't get with cooked artichokes." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

He maintains that he often eats them like this these days. But then he probably grows his own.

Mostly, however - at least in France - where I first encountered them, the leaves are eaten after the whole artichoke is steamed or boiled, and then peeled in the same way, but dipped in vinaigrette. It's a lengthy process, which Jay Rayner, in an amusing but thoughtful article in The Guardian, finds to be the perfect panacea for the stresses of the modern world:

"how blissfully engrossing the process of eating one can be. Each thick, olive-green petal must be pulled from its sticking place, dipped into the dressing, before the business end is dragged over the teeth to get at the mother lode. Finally, you must dispose of that leaf, and start again. Repeat, dozens of times. Of course, it’s delicious. But more importantly, it’s impossible to think about anything else other than the job at hand while eating one. The profound comfort of that is not to be underestimated." Jay Rayner/The Guardian

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall too:

"the thing I really love about these beautifully sculptural and majestic thistles is that they force you to go slowly. You have to be patient and you have to pay attention - and even then you'll still get butter on your shirt. You have to work for every last morsel, too, slowly unpeeling, nibbling, scraping and savouring." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

All of which seems to imply that the very difficulty of preparing the artichoke, and then, on top of that, the difficulty of eating them is the very thing that makes them delicious. Process is all. Not taste.

Of course there are lots of other things you can do with asparagus, and asparagus hearts, but there is indeed a huge amount of labour - and waste for the compost heap - involved - unless you buy them pickled in a jar - and frankly I really do not see why all the foodies get so excited by it. Jane Grigson whom I admire immensely is one of the worst offenders in this respect:

"the artichoke was the aristocrat of the Rneaissance kitchen garden, as the asparagus was of the Roman. It is sobering to realize that they are still the two finest vegetables we can grow. Nothing we have developed since comes near them for delicious flavour or for elegant form." Jane Grigson

I get the 'elegant form' - and here it is gracing the back cover of her Vegetable Book, but I simply don't get the taste experience.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who also adores them, is however, a little more tongue in cheek:

"An added, child-pleasing bonus? They make your mouth turn purple and your wee smell funny."

Asparagus too. It's not a thistle but the tip of the spear is a little thistle like.


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