Let us consider the artichoke. There is something very tempting about them which conflicts with the something about them that is very annoying. They have such a decorative value that eating them is akin to pulling the petals off a daisy, in the “she loves me, she loves me not”vein, with the same nutritional value. The pleasure of seeing them in their glorious piles of subtle colour and texture and choosing your particular favourite from amongst the bevy of beauties on display is going to be the apotheosis of the artichoke experience.This same burlesque quality is apparent in Mediterranean small town fish mongers and butchers, as I remember them some dozen years ago, which provoke in me a similar emotion. I have seen a butcher’s display that included a heron ( or maybe it was a stork but it certainly wasn’t a turkey) hanging alongside a bizarre array of poultryish creatures and other avian specimens that it didn’t look remotely out of place. Fishmongers offer creatures that are no more than a set of black spikes with a spiteful pair of eyes which are positive beauties in comparison with the other submarine nightmares on offer that compete for a purchaser, invariably successfully. with shiny, silver sea bream and stiff, bright eyed sardines. Please don’t misunderstand me, this desire to not to waste and to find new tastes is a good thing, but it can be soul destroying to be party to this goodness to which anyone who has spent a long afternoon peeling scorzonera will attest. Scorzonera and Jerusalem artichokes taste great but are too biblical for their own good in that one needs the patience of Job and, usefully, the life span of Methuselah to arrive at the moment of pleasure after the agony of preparation. Such tasks, if regularly undertaken, need to be a central part of what one does in life, which is how most of these foods ended up as foods.
Those who prepared them were totally concerned with finding nourishment and were not put off their quest by the bizarre costumes nature’s Diaghilev had chosen for them. What sort of inquisitiveness led anyone to believe that the artichoke might offer sustenance because, let’ s be honest, it doesn’t. What the artichoke offers is grist for the still life mill which is more than can be said for scorzonera or Jerusalem artichokes.The early demise of creative cooks on the look out for handsome vegetables must have soared in the dark ages, just think of those too good to be true red and white spotted mushrooms, and maybe this culinary inquisitiveness accounts for the amount of people deemed necessary to run a restaurant kitchen when such a rate of attrition prevailed. Having time and finding delight in all things edible, both of which qualities I now possess, are the true reason for spending time in the pointless preparation of wonderful looking ingredients that are totally unnecessary to our well being. I am not a hunter gatherer, but I’m willing to gather from the experienced hunter. I never tire of looking at, tasting, preparing and cooking even the strangest ingredients because I can see that the hunter gatherer is alive and well. The Borgia in me demands a food taster.