The peasants eat thistles, Goethe wrote disdainfully of the artichoke in his book Travels through Italy. Pliny the Elder, a first-century AD Roman scholar, called it one of life's monstrosities. And even recently one cookbook author described it as being encased in armour.

Despite such unflattering descriptions, the artichoke is well-loved in Italy. Once the season descends on us, almost every Italian restaurant in Rome serves it in various ways: as antipasto, stewed (alla Romana), and deep-fried (alla Giudia), among others. On the less pricey side, there are marinated artichoke hearts preserved in sunflower oil and deep-frozen hearts from supermarkets, not to mention the fresh produce for home preparation.

The Cynara scolymus, known locally as carciofo, belongs to the same family as the thistle. The part that we eat is, botanically speaking, the immature flower or bud of the plant.

If the buds are allowed to mature, they become showy, iridescent blooms that permeate the evening air with a musky perfume. However, this is a rare exhibition. Besides the fact that there is no market for the artichoke as a cut flower, the plant is propagated from suckers that sprout from the base of the parent plant, thereby eliminating the need to collect seeds from an old, spent flower.

This prickly vegetable most probably originated in the Mediterranean. It was mentioned as far back as the fourth century BC by Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher and naturalist, who wrote that it was being grown in Sicily. During the days of the Roman empire, the artichoke was regarded as a delicacy and was greatly enjoyed by the rich and powerful.

Beginning about 800 AD, the North African Moors and Saracens cultivated it in Spain and Sicily. The Arabs called this plant alqarshuf from which carciofo probably derived. From here, the artichoke moved up the Italian peninsula into Tuscany.

By the time Catherine de Medici was born in 1519, the edible chokes were everywhere in the Florentine region. When in 1533 she married the Duke of Orleans, who later became Henri II, king of France, she took along with her an entourage of cooks and the artichoke, of which she was very fond. In the 16th century, the artichoke was considered an aphrodisiac and was, therefore, reserved for men. Catherine ate it openly all the same, creating not only a scandal, but also eternal fame for the edible thistle. The vegetable, being uncommon then, was beyond the means of most Parisians, but became a fashionable dish for the wealthy aristocracy.

Today, this culinary delight is widely grown in France, Italy and Spain. Italy produces more than half a million tons of artichokes per year, most of it consumed locally. The growing season is exceptionally long. In Italy, local artichokes are available from October to June.

Generally speaking, the 90-odd different varieties of artichokes can be classified into just two groups: chokes with spines and chokes without spines. The winter harvest is spiny while in spring we can look forward to the spineless variety.

Among the commercially viable kinds that we see in the shops are the spiny artichokes from Palermo which are round, fleshy and tender. They are best eaten raw. Then there are the spineless varieties like the conical Violet from Tuscany which is best stewed. The spineless precocce has a lighter colour and should be fried. Also easily available is the roundish romano, another spineless variety that is ideal for stuffing and deep-frying in olive oil.

Despite its popularity in Italy, the artichoke is almost unknown in Asia and considered a luxury in many northern European countries, costing anything from three to five times more than what we pay here. We, lucky souls under the Mediterranean sun, also get to tuck into more varieties of this unique vegetable than our northern cousins.

The Cynara scolymus is one of the oldest medicinal plants and can be seen depicted in early Egyptian drawings involving fertility and sacrifice. The ancient Greeks and Romans regarded it as an aphrodisiac and also believed that eating it would aid in begetting boys.

The artichoke maintained its reputation as an enhancer of virility for a considerable time. In the 17th century, Robert Turner wrote in The British Physician that artichokes stir up lust by increasing seed and therefore are good for married persons who

are weak in the act of

generation. Unfortunately, this member of the thistle family is not a cheap and tasty substitute for Viagra,

as its aphrodisiacal properties have not been scientifically proven.

It does, however, have other medicinal qualities; a 1940s study in Japan showed that the vegetable was effective in lowering cholesterol levels and increasing bile production, and was a good diuretic. In a more recent European study an artichoke extract derived from the leaves of the plant reduced nausea, constipation, abdominal pain and flatulence in a significant number of patients. Moreover, the same study showed that total cholesterol and triglyceride levels dropped. It is also said that extracts of the root are helpful in preventing arteriosclerosis, the thickening and hardening of the artery walls.

Natural medicines derived from the artichoke have made their way onto Italian pharmacy shelves. On sale without a doctors prescription is dehydrated artichoke powder which is supposed to aid a sluggish digestion, a cause of drowsiness after a meal.

Picture: The artichoke has long been popular in Mediterranean countries for its culinary and medicinal uses.