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The cardoon is a close relative of artichoke with the wild cardoon being considered the ancestor of both. It is a perennial shrub that grows up to 2m in height. Its large pinnate leaves are greyish-green in colour on the upper side and almost white on the underside. The flowers are purple thistles. It is cultivated traditionally for its edible stalk. It is adapted to dry Mediterranean conditions where most precipitation occurs during the winter season. While the artichoke is usually vegetatively propagated, cultivated cardoon is raised from seed and cropped as an annual plant; the older shrubs produce fibrous stalks which are not as palatable as the more succulent annual ones.

Where it is found

All three of the subspecies, i.e. wild cardoon, artichoke and cultivated cardoon, originate from the Mediterranean region. There is evidence that artichoke was probably domesticated in Sicily, while cardoon was domesticated in the western Mediterranean, probably within Spain or France. The distribution of the cardoon ranges from Cyprus in the east to Portugal and the Canary Islands in the west, but is cultivated mostly in Italy, France, Spain and North Africa. 

The cardoon is a crop of regional importance in Spain, Italy and the south of France, where it is used in traditional dishes. The stalks can be eaten baked, boiled, fried or braised. The flowers are used as a rennet substitute in cheese-making.

How to eat it

Cardoon with Almond sauce 

Ingredients: 4 stems of cardoons; 1 large onion, finely chopped; 1 cup of raw almonds; 1-2 cups of unsweetened almond milk; 2 slices of stale bread; 1 bunch of fresh parsley; 1 lemon; salt; black pepper

To prepare the cardoons, cut off the rough ends and peel away the tough fibres. Place cut pieces in cold water with a splash of lemon juice to keep them from discolouring. Cut the cardoons in half lengthwise and then cut them in 2-inch pieces crosswise. Boil for 45 min, or until tender, in salted water with a little lemon juice.

Preparation: Fry the almonds in a little olive oil until toasted, taking care not to let them burn. Set aside. Fry the bread until golden, set aside and repeat the procedure for the chopped onion, frying until it just begins to brown. Mix the onion, almonds and bread and blend in a food processor. Pour this mixture back to the pan, cook with a little oil over low heat. Add the milk gradually and stir as you would a béchamel until it thickens. Then add cardoons and allow them to heat in the sauce. Add salt and crushed black pepper to taste, and garnish with parsley.

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