My Tuscany part I

My Tuscany isn’t the manicured cypress-lined lanes of Siena and Chianti. It isn’t the great art and architecture of Florence. My Tuscany is Lucca in the northwestern part of the region.

Lucca Province is in northwestern Tuscany

There’s Lucca in red, 30 minutes inland from Pisa.

As enchanting and perfectly formed as the city of Lucca is, it isn’t my Tuscany either. My Tuscany is the Piana di Lucca, the flat plains and low hills surrounding the city. My Tuscany is Versilia, the coastal plain to the west of the city.  My Tuscany is the Media Valle del Serchio and the Garfagnana, the mountains and the Serchio River valley to the north of the city.

The four geographic and economic zones of Lucca Province

The four zones of Lucca Province. I live in the Valle del Serchio, near Bagni di Lucca.

This is the territory you come to for your adventures with Sapori e Saperi (‘flavours and knowledge’). Some friends have made four short films capturing the essence of my Tuscany. Although they call it Part 2, I’m dishing up Lucca first.

If you’ve been on the cheese course (Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese, you’ll recognise Monica Ferrucci and her goat cheese. Or, your feet might have helped Gabriele da Prato crush his grapes. Maybe you’ve attended the Disfida della Zuppa (Soup Tournament) and helped judge the zuppa alla frantoiana entries (read more about the Disfida here: Or did you pick and press olives with me. If not, treat yourself to my Autumn in Tuscany tour in November ( You’ll have a crash course in olives and their oil, you’ll also hunt for white truffles (and eat them) and, best of all, you’ll get to know a little bit of my irresistible Lucca.

Posted in beans, cardoon, cheese, fagioli, FARM, Lucca, OLIVE OIL, SOUP, TRADITION, Tuscany, WINE | 2 Comments

Seasonal Eating: Cardoons Revisited

In England when I used to prepare historical feasts for Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, I pined futilely for a cardoon farmer. Cardoons cropped up regularly in recipes of the 17th and 18th centuries. I finally persuaded a friend to grow them on his allotment, but he planted them next to his artichokes, which are nearly identical, and couldn’t remember which was which. In culinary terms it matters; you eat the flower of an artichoke, but the stem of a cardoon. I can’t find any advice on what would happen if you ate the stem of an artichoke, and I didn’t try.

These are definitely artichokes (photo: Marion Edwards)

These are definitely artichokes (photo: Marion Edwards)

Cardoons are common in Italian shops and markets from November to February. Although they are completely unrelated, they look like giant celery but surprise with a flavour of artichoke hearts. The heads come in two shapes, depending on how they’re grown: straight stalks which are called cardi, and curved ones called gobbi. Gobbo means ‘hunchback’, and touching an amulet of a gobbo is said to bring good fortune. Whichever the shape, the cultivation and preparation of cardoons is fiddly. During their last month in the field, the stems are blanched like celery, by piling up the earth or tying straw or paper around them so they lose their chlorophyl and become creamy white. If you’re growing them gobbo-style, you bend them in half before covering them with soil.

Cardoons at Cinzia's market stall (Formoli, Bagni di Lucca)

Cardoons at Cinzia’s market stall (Formoli, Bagni di Lucca)

In the kitchen you de-string them, cut them into chunks and boil them in acidulated water to keep them from rusting. They’re good eaten hot simply with a drizzle of this year’s extra-virgin olive oil. In the Abruzzo a traditional Christmas lunch begins with a soup of cardoons and meatballs.

I’ve recently tried a Lucchese recipe for using up leftover bollito (boiled beef): infuse olive oil with garlic and sage leaves over a low heat, add chunks of boiled cardoons and sauté until they start to brown, add the boiled beef cut into cubes, stir well, deglaze the pan with white wine, add a few tinned tomatoes (not tasteless winter tomatoes) and simmer for 15 minutes. As long as you go light on the tomatoes, the flavours balance each other perfectly.

Cardoon in typical Lucca dish

Lesso rifatto con cardoni (boiled meat redone with cardoons)

Nutritionally cardoons are star players. They are said to have a fortifying and bracing effect on the stomach, protect the liver, reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Who knows, maybe they’re the elixir of youth.

There’s an old variety called cardo gobbo of Nizza Monferrato from the province of Asti in Piedmont. Being on the brink of disappearance, Slow Food has recognised it as a presidium. It grows on sandy soil with no fertilisers, chemical treatments or irrigation. Sown in May, by September the tall luxuriant stalks are ready to be bent over and covered with soil. The Slow Food website describes the plant dramatically attempting to liberate itself to get to the light. In the process of its struggles, it swells up and turns pure white. Once harvested and cleaned, it’s the only cardoon that can be eaten raw, and is an indispensable ingredient of bagna cauda, the typical Piemontese warm sauce based on garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and anchovies. Continuing the purple prose, ‘It’s not merely a dish but a convivial ritual.  Simmering in the centre of the table in an earthware terrine, the diners dip the pieces of vegetable and bring them to their mouths, catching the oil on a chunk of bread.’ If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Nizza Monferrato right now.

Postscript: Some ingredients draw me to repeated research. I had written this piece before discovering that I also wrote about cardoons in January 2013:

Posted in artichokes, cardoon, VEGETABLES | 4 Comments

Seasonal Eating 4: Cardoons

If you see something in Italy in winter with stems like giant celery, it’s probably a cardoon. The cardoon is the same plant as an artichoke, except that artichoke cultivars have been selected to have large edible flowers and cardoons to have large edible stems. In Italy they’re called or cardo or gobbo, depending on where you are, or cardo-gobbo if you’re in Piedmont and grow the Slow Food presidium Nizza Monferrato variety. Gobbo means hunchbacked and refers to the curved stems.


Cardoon at the farmers' market, Lucca

One month before the cardoon is mature, the farmer bends the stems over and covers them with soil to blanch them and give them a sweeter flavour. It’s very labour-intensive and now you see many straight stems because commercial market gardeners just slip a paper sleeve over the stems to make them turn white.

The stems taste very similar to the flowers, and since you get much more to eat from a stem, a cardoon makes a more economic and equally delicious side dish. Cardoons are usually steamed or boiled. You pull off the strings; I find a carrot peeler does the trick. Cut them into finger-length chunks, boil them in salted water (with some lemon peel to keep them from discolouring) until not quite tender and drain them. They’re then ready to stew in oil with some Italian sausage meat scattered over the top (Tuscans never missing a chance to add meat to a good vegetarian dish), a bit of stock and a sprinkling of parmigiano. Cover and cook on a gentle flame until done.

Posted in cardoon, VEGETABLES | 4 Comments