Canary Season in Venice
Special artichokes in the Venetian lagoon.
Castraure, botoli, canarini - they are Venetian artichokes, fresh in the spring and prized for their bitter flavors. What we eat of the artichoke plant is its large immature flower. Castraure (in season the last half of April) are the artichoke's first, topmost, floral shoots, lopped off to "castrate" the plant. This action stimulates laterally growing artichokes that are called botoli (don't pronounce the "l") in Venetian dialect. Botoli (available in May) are smaller than castraure, but less bitter - and far less expensive, since each plant produces many botoli but only one castraure.
The most prized Venetian artichokes grow in gardens on the islands of the city's lagoon. The salty water of the lagoon is said to give a unique flavor to vegetables. The mineral-rich soil on the small island of Sant'Erasmo yields bright yellow artichokes called "canaries" (canarini). Gardens on the Lido at Malamocco produce artichokes that aren't as yellow and are esteemed for a more bitter flavor. Stalls at the Rialto market in Venice proudly display the provenance of their local artichokes since they command higher prices. Artichokes that come a month earlier from the Livorno area in Tuscany, and look like Venetian varieties, don't get the respect and prices of native produce.
Castraure are usually cooked in a style called scaltriti - sauteed in extra virgin olive oil until brown, then braised with garlic and water or broth, garnished with chopped parsley. Some cooks deep-fry lightly battered castraure or botoli wedges in extra-virgin olive oil. Thin strips of tender bracts (what most of us call leaves) and heart (the fleshy base) of botoli are used to make a wonderful torta di pera if you can't make it to Venezia!
April 17, 1996