Artichoke comes from the Spanish alcachofa, which in turn comes from the Arabic al kharshuf, which means thistle flower. This answers the question of where artichokes came from. The Moors brought them from Morocco to Spain hundreds of years ago. The Spanish in turn took them to Italy (around Naples) and Sicily. The Italians call it carciofa. Italians are today the largest producers and consumers of artichokes by far, but several other countries (France, Greece, Spain, Egypt, Argentina, Chile, and the USA) are also big producers. Basically, where you find Mediterranean people living in a Mediterranean climate, you'll find artichokes.
The artichoke (as we know it) is the immature flower (bud) of a thistle plant. Its best-known relatives include lettuce, sunflowers, asters, endive and chicory. Records of the vegetable being consumed go back 2000 years. Always a delicacy, the plant was popularized by Catherine de' Medici, who was married at age fourteen to Henry II in France. In that era (1533), artichokes were a famed aphrodisiac, and Henry had a notorious artichoke appetite.
In the mid-1800's, French immigrants brought artichoke plants to Louisiana where the Creole artichoke was grown. The Spanish brought the artichoke to California very early in their conquest, but it was never really appreciated until the arrival of Sicilians in Monterey.
Andrew Molera, a landowner in the Salinas Valley, leased much of his land to farmers growing sugar beets for the Spreckels Sugar Company. When the price of sugar began to fall in the early 20s, Molera gambled on high-priced vegetables loved by the Sicilians, such as the exotic Sicilian cabbage flower (broccoli) and the artichoke. It was a wise business decision, because today the Salinas Valley grows most of the nations broccoli and eighty percent of the nations artichokes (the remaining 20% are grown in other parts of California south of Salinas).
It turns out that the Salinas Valley near the Monterey Bay, where the town of Castroville is located, has the perfect climate for artichokes. The marine influence protects the crop from hard frost during the winter and high temperatures during the summer, allowing the crop to develop slowly, and the sandy soil produces high yields year-round. Artichokes perfer a frost-free coastal climate, with cool foggy summers, and not too much rain. They also grow in hotter climates, but in a smaller yield, and in a conical rather than globe shape. Some say these are more flavorful, but this is a matter of taste.
There are up to 50 varieties of artichoke, most of them called "globe" with some descriptor. All major producers produce their own hybrids from seed. (Some thornless varieties are currently being produced and marketed, including a purple Sicilian.) The rounder ones are grown in cooler climates or seasons than the conical ones. They are most tender and edible just before the leaves begin to bloom. They are usually harvested just as they have reached their maximum size and before the leaves begin to separate (bloom). Once the bud has bloomed, it is a flower and no longer edible. The smaller artichokes are no less mature than the largest, but they have simply grown lower on the plant with less exposure to sunlight. These "baby artichokes" are very tender and great for salads, paella and risotto dishes and can even be eaten raw. (I love baby artichokes but have a hard time finding them outside the Monterey Bay area.)
Rich with sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, iron, proteins and vitamins, artichokes may be prepared in a number of ways: Roman style, Judas style, Sicilian style, or fried, just to mention a few of the best-known recipes. When young and tender they are best eaten raw, sliced and flavored with oil, lemon and a few sprigs of mint. Supermarket artichokes must be cooked, however, and my preference is to simply steam them upside down, because I don't find drippy, waterlogged artichokes appealing. Should they be eaten hot or cold? Either way is good. What's the best dipping sauce? Anything you like (except ketchup). Use your favorite salad dressing or make up your own -- the flavor of the artichoke isn't too delicate to be overpowered by anything, whether savory, sweet, sour, or bitter. What's the best wine? None. Wine tastes funny with artichoke. If you're serving a fine wine, save it for the main course.
Various studies worldwide have shown that blood cholesterol dropped after eating artichoke. In fact, an anticholesterol drug called Cynara is derived from this herb. A Japanese study showed that artichoke not only reduced cholesterol but also increased bile production by the liver and worked as a good diuretic.