The other night at the Manse, Raymond and I had steamed artichokes with hollandaise sauce as a first course at dinner. Delicious! Now, in our immediate past life in Montreal, this would have been no big deal at all; we had artichokes there fairly often, and I can make a pretty good hollandaise. (As can Raymond.) But in my childhood, here in the very same house where Raymond and I had them the other night, steamed artichokes would have been – well, unimaginable.
Indulge me for a minute and let me tell you about the first time I ever ate a steamed artichoke. It was in Paris.
I was there on my own, not for the first or last time. Lest you think that was a sad state of affairs, let me assure you that Paris – despite all the hoohah about it being the most romantic city in the world – is a wonderful place in which to spend time on your own. I mean, yes, of course it’s a romantic place and wonderful to be in with the person you love – but having spent quite a lot of time there solo, I can also say with assurance that one discovers things and does things that one never would were one busy being with someone else. And there is also something so deliciously melancholy and Beaudelaireian about being alone in Paris … but don’t get me started.
Anyway. The artichoke.
It was a weekend, a Saturday or a Sunday – I don’t remember which. I think a Sunday. I had wandered down the ancient, narrow Rue Mouffetard, a market street from time immemorial (like, Roman times and before) in the Fifth Arrondissement. (I was staying at a tiny, cheap and secret hotel – I will not share; can’t have the place overrun, though if you’re truly interested let me know and maybe, just maybe, I will – on the other side of the hill in the Fifth.) Toward the bottom of the street was an unfancy café/restaurant packed to the gills with people (French people, not tourists) on this busy market morning. “Aha!” said I to myself. “A good place for lunch!”
And I proceeded to go in and order the specials of the day. Which on the entrée side – and here let me explain that “entrée” in France, and Quebec, and wherever the French language is properly understood, means “first course” (“appetizer,” if you must), not “main course” (which makes no sense at all) – was artichokes. And given that I have never met a vegetable that I didn’t like, and that until that point in my life my experience with artichokes was of the artichoke-hearts-preserved-in-oil-and-bottled variety (painless and delicious), I thought nothing more of it.
So perhaps you can imagine my horror when the waiter brought me a huge green bulby-type thing with triangle-shaped leaves all over it, and ceremoniously plunked it down in front of me with some sauce (hollandaise, as I later discovered thanks to my idol Julia Child) on the side.
What to do? Here I was in the heart of Paris, having ordered a typically French thing, surrounded by French people, and I did not have a clue.
So I did the only thing I could think of: I snuck glances at the people around me who also had artichokes in front of them. (It having been the daily special, there were a lot.) And as far as I could see, people were pulling off the leaves and dipping them into the accompanying sauce and sticking one end of them in their mouths.
(I should mention here that this was before Steve Jobs and Co. invented the iPhone. Had my predicament happened in 2014, I could have called up a “How to Eat an Artichoke” video on YouTube and been all set. But those were the days when we had to manage on our own, without the collected wisdom of the world at our fingertips.)
So I started to pull off leaves and dip them in the hollandaise and put the end of them in my mouth – and soon enough I figured out that you scrape off the tender bit at the bottom of each leaf with your teeth, and in the process get a tiny bit of the delicious interior. Soaked in buttery and lemony hollandaise. What could be better?
Then when all the leaves were gone there was the next conundrum: what do you do with the core? People, I am wildly embarrassed to admit this, but I think that I left it untouched in that café, because I did not know about removing the hairy stuff (the choke) and enjoying the delicious heart (the part that ends up preserved in oil in the little bottles that you buy in the supermarket) dipped in yet more hollandaise.
But the leaves alone had been a revelation. It was one of those Paris lunches that kind of change your life.
Of course I was never remotely afraid of artichokes after that, and in fact embraced them and learned to cook them. And to make hollandaise. Thanks to Julia. Who will now show you:
But here’s the thing: you just don’t see artichokes for sale in the grocery stores here in central Hastings County. And really, why should you? They come from California, and California is a very long way from Madoc or Tweed. And I totally get the whole thing about eating local. (Which, when it comes to vegetables, means potatoes and carrots and rutabagas and onions at this time of year. All of which are fine by me.) But you do find them at grocery stores in larger centres. Like Toronto, where Raymond happened to be this past week.
He couldn’t resist buying two gorgeous fat artichokes at the legendary Pusateri’s. Back to the Manse they came, and Raymond steamed them to perfection, and prepared a lovely hollandaise. And they were wonderful.
I think I may be safe in guessing that they were the very first steamed artichokes ever served in the United Church Manse in Queensborough, Ont.
But not, I hope, the last.