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Taking a trip down to Gortnanain, Ultan and Lucy’s farm, is far and away my favourite reason to get out of the city. I go out there to check on the state of the produce in the fields and tunnels, to see what vegetables are coming up next, which ones are fading out, or to bring back some of the trial crops Ultan is always working on. Sometimes I go there to play with the hive of bees that are notionally mine but which Ultan really looks after. I can think of loads of work related reasons to go but, truth be told, I also go there just to hang out, eat cake, drink tea and spend a few hours in a place that is as much a haven of tranquil sanity as it is a working farm.
Today I went to get a few more artichokes in case Paradiso ran out in the middle of Saturday dinner service. Nice excuse on a warm August afternoon.
We had something close to an artichoke crisis at the start of the year. Ultan was annoyed by the state of the plants and the – by his standards – poor crop in Spring of last year. Fighting the urge to plough them into the field and give up on the idea of artichokes, he carefully took cuttings from the best of them and ruthlessly discarded a number of fashionable varieties that weren’t performing well. The cuttings of the elite survivors were moved to a bigger area, laid in the soil and nurtured with a powerful mixture of care, knowledge, attention and ferocious optimism. And the wettest July on record, not necessarily a bad thing for artichokes even if it put a damper on your holidays in Ballybunnion.
The upshot for Paradiso was that we would have no artichokes in Spring but all going well the plants should throw up a harvest in the Autumn. A small sacrifice if it means we still have a farmer who believes in his ability to grow artichokes for the years ahead.
Of course I forgot my camera today so the photo here is of the most beautiful artichoke flower head we harvested, being treated like royalty.
When the first crop came in last week, it was like welcoming an old friend back. More than that, an old friend rejuvenated. I swear these are the best artichokes we’ve ever had or that I’ve ever eaten. Big, fleshy, easy to prepare, with long stems of juicy sweetness and almost none of that annoying hairy choke. The American variety, Imperial Star are, well, the stars of the show. They’ve been on the menu just a week now, as a main course, grilled and dressed with tomato concasse and a lemon-herb crumb and served over a fat ravioli of Knockalara sheep’s cheese.
The crop is impressive and we should have them for a month or more. For anyone who loves artichokes this is a window of opportunity to eat something truly rare – the fruit of a labour of love of an extraordinarily brilliant grower. The same could be said for almost everything on the Paradiso menu at the moment since it all comes from the same precious few acres of land. And if eating the artichokes in Paradiso isn’t enough for you, book a stay at Gortnanain and eat them for dinner at Ultan and Lucy’s table too.
Posted on: 15 August 2009