According to Greek mythology, the origin of the word artichoke can be traced back to none other than Greek god Zeus, who, while visiting his brother Poseidon, caught sight of a beautiful woman named Cynara and instantly fell in love with her. After seducing her and making her a goddess, Zeus brought Cynara to live on Mount Olympus, where, however, she began to feel lonely and miss her family. Cynara began visiting them in secret, only to be found out by Zeus who, enraged, threw her out of Olympus and transformed her into an artichoke. From then on, the legend goes, the unfortunate girl’s name, Cynara went on to become the scientific name for artichoke – cynara cardunculus.
As for the plant itself, scientists believe that both the modern cultivated artichoke and the cardoon – its wild counterpart – descended from the wild cardoon, a tough, prickly plant that likely originated in north Africa and Sicily. In Roman times, artichokes were thought to have medicinal benefits like curing baldness, strengthening the stomach, aiding the conception of male heirs, freshening the breath, and even serving as an aphrodisiac. The Roman ate them pickled in honey and vinegar, and seasoned with cumin, but it was the Arabs who really favoured their spread across the Mediterranean (that’s how the name al-kharshuf turned into the Spanish alcarchofa, the Italian articiocco, and the English artichoke).
Over the centuries, artichokes found popularity across European courts, with the Italians being their biggest fans (Caterina de’ Medici was said to have introduced them to France when she moved there at age 14 to marry Henry II, and Caravaggio once attacked a waiter over a plate of artichokes. If that’s not love, we don’t know what is). From Lombardy to Lazio, artichokes became king of the table through a variety of inventive recipes – some of which even came to define specific branches of our cooking, like Roman-Jewish cuisine.