On beyond EasterBy
In my last communique, Easter was tapping on the windows asking to be let in.
Now it has passed, leaving the usual signs — peace, joy, and crumbs. I have the feeling that the crumbs are going to last the longest.
There are crumbs of a colomba, the Easter dove, the traditional spring stand-in for the Christmas panettone, in the general form of a bird and covered with almonds and bits of pearl sugar. Crumbs of the hollow chocolate Easter egg strewn among shards of its busted hulk, crumbs of a small chocolate-covered cake in the form of a bunny, with a fragment of an ear. There is still a small bin of chocolate eggs, and another whole colomba in the form of a flower frosted in pink. But you know what? I’m sugared out.
The best thing I’ve eaten since last Sunday’s feast of roast lamb and assorted sugar-bombs was set on the table last night — bought, transported, and prepared by the indefatigable Lino.
First, we had seppie in their ink, which we’d bought just-caught from the fisherman that morning, and which had passed the afternoon simmering in their black essence. We sploshed around in it with chunks of polenta, the old-fashioned kind Lino likes to make in his mother’s copper cauldron — it requires 40 minutes of almost constant stirring. These two items alone would have satisfied most mortals.
But best of all, we had something I had always heard of but never tasted: castraure (kahs-tra-OOR-eh). These are tiny artichokes, in this case being of the violetto di Sant’ Erasmo breed, but they are more than that: They are the very first artichoke, cut from the plant in order to allow its fellow ‘chokes to prosper.
You’d be right in guessing that “castraura” has something to do with castration. Linguistically, it does. Physiologically, it makes no sense, but let us not dwell on the details.
My impression is that they have become something of a minor culinary myth, in the sense of being apotheosized to the point where to meet the demand (or to justify the price), there are more castraure offered in the Rialto Market than the last reported total number of pieces of the True Cross. For there to be that many castraure, even assuming most of them come from hothouses all over Italy and not simply from local fields, there could scarcely be enough land left to grow a bouquet of begonias.
Castraure are small, as you might expect, but so are its subsequent siblings, which are called botoli (BAW-toh-lee). As far as I can tell, there’s no way to tell them apart, just by looking at them. If you have the chance, then, go buy them from the farmer, like Lino did. He saw the little morsels cut from the plant just for him, so no debates about their provenance.
You can eat them grilled, or saute’d in garlic and oil, or raw, sliced paper-thin with oil and salt and vinegar. Or raw, whole. Just make sure there isn’t any wildlife running around among the leaves. Trivia alert: Technically, they’re not leaves, and they’re not petals, either. They’re bracts. It’s a word which won’t get you very far in the kitchen, but at least now you know.
Or you can eat them breaded and fried, which is what Lino did. I’m not a huge fan of frying, since there seem to be more than 8,000 ways to do it wrong and only one way to do it right. Also, frying seems to blunt or distort the flavor of the object fried. But there was no bluntage last night.
Our little castraure were tender enough to eat whole, stem included, and best of all, they were bitter. It’s a purposeful flavor, stronger and more complex than the everyday artichokes I already love. Certainly stronger than the later-blooming botoli. If you don’t like bitter flavors, whether simple or complex, you should abandon your dream of the castraure because they will not compromise or ingratiate themselves, not even for you.
I admire that in a plant.