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A California-coastal town claims it is the artichoke center of the world | Bartell's Backroads

Castroville, just south of the Bay Area, produces three fourths of the state's artichoke supply.

CASTROVILLE, Calif. — Fog is a common occurrence and a part of life the Salinas Valley, but when the fog settles over the farming town of Castroville, artichokes soak it up.

Castroville isn't the self-proclaimed artichoke center of the world for nothing. The coastal town produces three fourths of California's artichoke, they are home to the world's largest artichoke, at one time Marylin Monroe was crowned as Castroville's Artichoke Queen and now the artichoke is the main attraction in Evan Oakes' agritourism business. Oakes is the owner and tour coordinator for Ag Venture Tours & Consulting.

"I think I am the only company in California that offers a daily tour,” Oakes said.

If you don't know, agritourism is essentially tour bus rides that showcase farming. The Salinas Valley is rich in agriculture, but their cash crop is artichoke. 

"The artichoke is actually the county vegetable and now it’s also the state vegetable,” Oakes said. 

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He's not lying. In 2013, then Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed the artichoke as the state vegetable.

The funny thing about the artichoke plant is that its both a flower and a vegetable. Distinguishing the difference is a little complicated, but according to artichoke farmer Sean Pezzini, it all depends on when you eat it and what part you eat. Artichokes are only edible before they bloom, and the underdeveloped blossom or choke are considered vegetables

"It’s actually a flower, so if left to unpicked it will open up and bloom like a flower,” Pezzini said. 

The artichoke was picked wild and considered a gourmet food during the Roman Empire. During Medieval times, it was grown in small plots. By the mid-1920s, Castroville planted and harvested on a mass scale.

"This field we go through about every seven 7 days and strip the artichokes that are ready to be harvested,” Pezzini said.

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Pezzini Farms grow a smaller plot of perennial artichokes that they can harvest year-round. Larger artichoke producers grow annual varieties that are harvested a few times a year. Regardless of the variety, artichokes are harvested by hand, not machines. 

"They cut through the artichoke and normally they will have a backpack and throw it in. Once it's full, they will dump it in a bin,” Pezzini said.

There's a number of ways to cook an artichoke, but there's really only one sure fire way to see if one is fresh. 

"A lot of people do the squeeze test. So, if you squeeze it. It should make a squeak noise,” Pezzini said.

If you plan to visit Castroville, you'll find the freshest artichokes at the annual Artichoke Festival in every May. And if you go to the event, stay for the artichoke eating contest and the crowning of the artichoke queen. It's an event that rarely gets canceled, no matter how foggy it is.