Mr Piggy goes to market looking for artichokes

Mr Piggy is less than pleased if he doesn’t find an artichoke in his trough at this time of year. This is the high season for this special vegetable; they make a first appearance in January at what seems a high price for what after all is a glorified thistle.

The “earlies” will usually come from Sicily, where the plant originated, but through February they become more affordable as locally grown artichokes come on stream, often sold in bunches of five.

These medium-sized artichokes are often best steamed upside down having first cut off the tops but leaving an inch of ArtichokesThe artichoke has long been used as an aphrodisiac, and women in the Middle Ages were forbidden from eating themstem. Trim them down to get rid of the remaining coarse bits of leaves, and if you’re keeping them to serve cold douse them with vinaigrette to prevent them from discolouring.

A particularly toothsome variation on our Mediterranean artichoke is the spinoso sardo variety, much grown in Liguria but not so common here. They are a must-buy if you are making a raid across the frontier, to the Ventimiglia market, for instance. But be careful, the spines are super-sharp; they’ll puncture a plastic bag if you do not handle with caution.

What we call the globe artichoke, the biggest of the family, is usually the Camus de Bretagne (Brittany also produces the similar Castel). These can fetch a handsome price. Normally steamed peeled and dipped as a starter, the hairy choke is discarded.

A treat to come is provided by a local speciality, the Violet de Provence, which comes into season in March in a warm year and is mostly eaten raw. Cut these little purple artichokes in quarters and dip in salt to experience the French croque-au-sel. Shaving them over a salad or a bowl of pasta adds a delicious crunch.