Speaking of artichokes: who was Cynara?

I recently posted about a fabulous raw artichoke salad I enjoyed and, naturally, it got me started thinking about the history of the plant!

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Artichokes, the flowers of the artichoke plant, are commonly found in the Mediterranean area. This flower has been loved since the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. In fact, the ancient Greeks believed that artichokes had a divine origin.

According to legend, Zeus, the father of all the Gods, saw an incredibly beautiful human woman named Cynara.

Zeus fell in love with Cynara’s beautiful ash-blond hair, so naturally he seduced her and brought her up to Mt. Olympus with him. However, the beautiful young girl was homesick and decided to return to her mother’s home on earth.

When Zeus discovered that she had escaped, he was furious for having been betrayed! He punished Cynara by flinging her back to earth and turning her into a plant with a tender heart and spiny exterior. And that is how Cynara became the artichoke.

Today, most artichoke varieties are planted as annuals from seed, and tend to be hybrids of cynara scolymus, whereas in earlier times the principal species were grown as perennials forming massive clumps with deep taproots.  Artichokes were intensely cultivated in Italy in the middle ages, though it seems that roots and the stalks were mostly consumed. In the Renaissance era, hybridization produced the large edible globe we know today.

Back in the day, artichokes were reserved exclusively for consumption by the upper class men only. Apparently, the aphrodisiacal powers ascribed to the artichoke were thought to be too stimulating for women!

Catherine de Medici changed all that when, upon her arrival in Avignon, France, in the 16th century, she informed her husband Henry II, that she would eat artichokes. She observed that the young women of her day were more forward than the pages at court, so perchè no?

And then there is that Italian digestivo created from the artichoke!  What is it called?  Cynar, ovviamente!

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Cynar is a liqueur made from an infusion of 13 herbs and plants, including cynarin which is extracted from the artichoke.  In Italy, the beverage is considered to be a very helpful digestivo.

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Cynar is richly aromatic and has a low alcohol content (16.5 °).  Like all the best things in life (secondo me), it was created in the 1950s! In 1952 to be exact.

 

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