How Zeus fell in love with an artichoke

9 Sep

I had often heard the story of Zeus turning his lover into an artichoke, but I could never quite understand — why an artichoke?  Until this summer, when I found myself standing in a field of blooming artichoke plants, their bright purple flowers gleaming in the sun.

According to the story, Zeus was visiting his brother Poseidon one day on a small Aegean island, when he came upon a stunningly beautiful young woman named Cynara. Falling head over heels as was his wont, he offered to transform her into a goddess so she could come live near him, and they could cavort whenever his wife Hera was out of town.  Cynara consented but soon grew weary of Olympian life.  She missed her mother and so, one night, she slipped away for a short visit back home.  Soon after her return, Zeus discovered Cynara’s “betrayal” and, as was also his wont, he flew into a rage.  He flung Cynara from the heavens, transforming her once again, this time from a goddess into an artichoke, one of the most stunningly beautiful flowers to grow in earthly fields.

And now  here I was, seeing for the first time artichokes in the full beauty of their blooms, thanks to Vangelis Likouretzos  who, like Zeus, had fallen madly in love with Cynara.  Vangelis farms artichokes, like most of his neighbors in the village of Iria in the northern Peloponnese.  Together, they produce most of the artichokes grown in Greece.

And with good reason. Cynara, you see, had saved Vangelis and his village from destruction.  In the early 1950s, Vagelis told me,  a drought ravaged Iria and the nearby sea water rushed into the depleted water table, contaminating the ground water.  Most of Iria’s crops withered and died.  But the artichoke not only survived, it thrived in the briny soil.  Today, farmers have added additional crops, but they still favor Cynara.   Vangelis even organized an annual spring artichoke festival two years ago, with art exhibits, cooking demonstrations, and lectures on the value of the artichoke to human health –and the local economy.

Vangelis' Artichoke farm in Iria, Peloponnese.

Vangelis’s farm, like others in the area, is a small family business.  He hires a few workers from the village in November to help with the labor intensive work of cutting each artichoke from its stalk so another can grow in its place.  But he knows that Cynara needs love.  “Hired workers lend a much needed hand, but they don’t bring the attention or kindness that the artichoke demands to the task,” he says. “Only the family that depends on the plant for its livelihood can do that.”

There is no doubt that Vangelis loves his artichokes.  He talks enthusiastically about Cynara’s genetics and life cycle, occasionally tromping off through the thigh high plants to find an example to cut and bring back to me and my students for demonstration.

Meanwhile, the sun beats down and my students and I begin to shuffle, trying hard not to wilt under the heat.  Soon, as attentive and kind to us as he is to his beloved, Vangelis notices and, stopping mid-sentence, suggests that we return to the farmhouse.

“My wife, Yioula  will show you how to cook and clean artichokes,” he says.  And she does. 

When we have finally cleaned a heaping basket of artichokes, submerging the delicate hearts in a bowl of lemon-water, Yioula’s mother, Yiayia (grandmother) Constandina fires up her outdoor oven fueling it with dried olive branches, and shows us how to make bread as we huddle around her.

An hour or so later, we gather around a long table set out on Vangelis and Yioula’s shaded balcony.  Yiayia brings out our bread and Yioula brings out a cold artichoke appetizer, followed by two traditional Greek artichoke dishes. The first, made with goat meat, is often served at wedding and other celebratory feasts. The second, made with lamb, graces Greek tables at Easter.  It’s my favorite.

Artichokes with Lamb (adapted from Yioula Likouretzos)

4 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

10 scallions, coarsely chopped

3 pounds lamb cut into cubes for stewing

10 artichokes, cleaned and immersed in a bowl of lemon/water (you want only the hearts)

1 cup (I just throw in one big bunch) of fresh snipped dill

2 large eggs

Juice from 2 large lemons

Salt & Pepper

Heat the oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat.

Add the scallions and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes.  Remove and set aside.

Add the lamb cubes in a single layer, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until brown on all sides.  Transfer to a plate, and continue until all the lamb cubes have been browned.

Return all the lamb to the pan along with the scallions and add enough water to cover.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and braise the lamb until it is tender, one to one-and-a-half hours.

Add the artichokes and dill.  Cover and continue simmering until the artichokes are almost tender, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Break the eggs into a bowl and beat them until frothy.  Whisk in the lemon juice.  Slowly add some of the cooking liquid from the pan to the mixture, whisking constantly, until the mixture is warm.

Remove the pan from the heat and slowly whisk in the egg and lemon sauce. Return the skillet to low heat and continue stirring until the liquid is thick, 1 to 2 minutes.

Most recipes insist that this dish be served immediately, piping hot.  It’s good that way, but I’ve also had it served at room temperature in the summer with feta cheese and slices of crusty bread.

My yiayia, who has been eating and making this dish for most of her 94 years, and who learned to make it from her mother who learned to make it in a culinary school in Constantinople (Istanbul to the rest of the world –but that’s another story for another post!), also likes to add carrots. Simply peel and cut a handful of carrots into one-inch chunks, and add to the pan along with the artichokes.

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2 Responses to “How Zeus fell in love with an artichoke”

  1. eleonora redaelli (@elereda) September 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    great story. I love the artichoke’s flower!

    • KuZina September 9, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

      It’s beautiful, isn’t it??? There’s nothing quite like seeing hundreds and hundreds of them in full bloom, spreading out across the fields!

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