Each Spring, piles of spiky purple and green artichokes appear in Carcassonne market and they disappear just as quickly as the locals snap them up.
The smaller purple ones are sold in bunches (bouquets) of five, each bunch secured with an elastic band at the base to hold them together. The larger globe artichokes, looking like ornate green railing tops, are sold by the piece.
When living in the UK I would buy jars of artichoke hearts from delis and supermarkets but I had never thought about preparing them myself - maybe because they weren't as obviously on sale with the other fresh vegetables. But in France there they are, in all their purple majesty, piled high on the market stalls and being eagerly snapped up by one and all.
Their hard spiky outer leaves and thistle like appearance make them a little daunting to tackle without knowing how to deal with them. I have read many cookbooks that simply state "take your prepared artichokes" or "after you have removed the outer leaves and the choke" - all of which still left me feeling uncertain that I was doing the right thing.
As with everything in life, it all becomes crystal clear when someone shows you how to do it and so it was for me - it's also an interesting story.
One of my very first guests when 42rvh opened in March 2008 turned out to be a chef - not just any old chef, but a Michelin trained chef (under Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo followed by stints at Bibendum and Quaglino's in London) and I had to cook for him having never cooked professionally for anyone else before. It was hardly a gentle introduction. I was nervous anyway. I was on my own because Debrah was tied up in London that weekend ... and then I made things a whole lot worse.
The chef came back from the fabulous Saturday market with an array of food that he wanted to prepare for his girlfriend. He asked if he could borrow this and that and I said he could borrow my kitchen - so he invited me to dinner. He was now going to cook for me before I cooked for him the next day.
The big plus for me though was that I had an impromptu masterclass in my own kitchen which included how to prepare artichoke hearts and I have never looked back since. Here is how I bottle them up.
Look for small tight firm artichokes because they have very little or no choke in the centre. Remove the hard outer leaves using a small paring knife until you get to the lighter green softer inner ones - the heart. Trim off the stem at the base and cut across the top of the artichoke to remove the spiky tips. Cut the heart in half and remove the soft fluffy choke, if there is one. Rub the peeled hearts all over with lemon and drop into a pan containing water, lemon juice, olive oil, red wine vinegar and a couple of bayleaves. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until the hearts are cooked (20 to 30 minutes). Leave to cool before transferring to sterilised jars and keep in the fridge.
It is a bit of a labour of love that produces a mound of waste compared to final product but they are delicious as a canape or as a starter with local cured ham or in a salad. One thing is certain - they don't last beyond a week and the next batch will be in the pan the following Saturday.
In case you were wondering, I am relieved to say that the dinner was a success. Phew!