This weekend, Castroville celebrates the 52nd annnual Artichoke Festival. This is a time-honored tradition in the town that calls itself "The Artichoke Capital of the World.”
Artichokes have been an important crop around the Monterey Bay for many decades. Since the 1940s, Castroville has been the center of the artichoke-growing industry in the U.S.
Last week I visited the headquarters of the Artichoke Festival at the La Scuola building on Merritt Street in Castroville. Volunteers were busy preparing for the events, which will include music, cooking demos, vegetable art, wine and farm tours, and artichokes cooked more ways than you can imagine.
Denise Amerison, executive director of the festival, said there is a lot of excitement this year, because a new reality TV show, Festival Express (I.S.M. Entertainment), will be filming them.
From Pat Hopper, manager of the California Artichoke Advisory Board, I learned that artichokes were first grown by Japanese farmers in Carmel as early as 1909. By 1921, Italian farmers were cultivating the crop for market.
"It was an industry of small farms, where everything was packed on the ranch; you got a bottle of Grappa and packed [artichokes] with your workers," Hopper said.
Nowadays, she said, "95 percent of the nation’s artichoke crop comes from Castroville" and nearby fields.
Marilyn Monroe was crowned Queen of the California Artichoke and Vegetable Growers Association in 1948. The Artichoke Festival launched 13 years later, in 1961.
Both Hopper and Amerison spoke highly of the many volunteers who work hard to put on the festival every year.
"It’s good to see Castroville citizens backing the festival,” Hopper said.
The artichoke is a nutrient-laden vegetable with a distinctive, rich taste and texture (sans thorns) that goes well with dips and sauces. Pezzini Farms' nutritional chart shows that one artichoke contains only 25 calories. Also, it contains zero grams of cholesterol and only 6 grams of carbohydrate. What's not to like?
You can get popular fried artichoke hearts at many locations in and around Castroville. Local restaurant offer artichoke dishes year-round.
At the in Watsonville, you can order artichoke crab cakes with roasted lemon sauce or spinach salad with artichoke hearts, bacon and feta cheese. They also offer steamed and grilled whole artichokes with jalapeño aioli sauce.
Phil's Fish Market & Eatery in Moss Landing serves artichokes six different ways:
• steamed whole
• French-fried with dipping sauce
• fire-roasted and marinated with aioli sauce
• stuffed with breadcrumbs, crab and shrimp
• Sicilian-style, stuffed with three cheeses and herbed breadcrumbs
• Provencal-style stuffed with scallops, shrimp, garlic and wine
Phil's also serves an artichoke salad. I tried the fire-roasted and Sicilian-style 'chokes. Both were utterly delicious. For dessert, I went just down the road to Haute Enchilada and enjoyed an artichoke cupcake with cream cheese frosting, topped with toasted walnuts, strawberries and cream.
Whether you like cooking or not, you can go to the Castroville Artichoke Festival to sample and celebrate the beautiful artichoke and our agricultural bounty.
Castroville Artichoke Festival: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Parade at 9:45 a.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children at the gate. In Castroville, follow the signs to parking and the festival location.