Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The 53rd Annual Castroville Artichoke Festival

I've mentioned this before, but Chris and I heard about the Artichoke Festival through the Artichoke Aficionados Club newsletter sometime last year. We had no genuine intention to go to California just for the festival, but as it would seem, the idea implanted itself so firmly in our minds that we JUST SO HAPPENED to book our vacation corresponding with that very weekend. It was fate!

The Artichoke Festival took place on May 19-20 in Castroville, California. The city was founded by Juan Bautista Castro in 1863.  It is considered the "Artichoke Center of the World" because it grows more artichokes within a centralized area than any other region. A whopping 75% of artichokes grown in the United States are grown in Castroville. And you can tell! This town loves artichokes. They are literally everywhere and, while we were there, it seemed like the festival was made up of locals predominantly. And they were very, very happy.

Like I said, the Artichoke Festival has been taking place since 1948. Marilyn Monroe was actually the very first Artichoke Queen! Nowadays, high school kids receive the honor. In addition to having a festival king and queen, they also throw a (rather long) parade and host a classic car show. Food and craft vendors can also be found. There are games and rides for the kids to enjoy. You can stroll through an Agro Art exhibit, where the creations are made from artichokes and other vegetables. There's also a wine tasting and some cooking demos.

Of all the things we expected to be excited about, the food was at the top of our list. We dove right in and got a grilled artichoke to start. They apparently marinated it in balsamic and some other fabulousness. It really was very good. We also ordered up an ENTIRE POTATO spiraled and deep fried. They even had various things we could sprinkle on it. It was greasy but fun. Yay. Chris also bought some chips and artichoke salsa, which were okay, according to her. Other options included artichoke cupcakes (which were described to us as being like zucchini muffins), artichoke pasta, and artichoke burritos. Here's a picture of the grilled artichoke.

We enjoyed everything the event had to offer, like the craft vendors and demonstrations, but I feel like the highlight for Chris and I, though, was the "Field Tour" where a tour guide brings a bus full of 'choke lovers to where the glorious globes are actually grown. It costs an additional $5 and consumes a considerable amount of your time, but I feel like it was definitely worth it. 

We had watched our tour guide, whose name was Pat, during an "artichokes 101" type demonstration and were thrilled when we heard her tell the audience she had a 1 o'clock tour to get to (which was our tour). She was very enthusiastic, funny, and knowledgeable. I'm pretty sure she knew everything about artichokes a person could know. We had a nearly full bus of artichoke enthusiasts to go on an adventure with and Pat brought us to two fields and a fantastic little farmstand. She taught us about how the artichokes are grown, the difference between annual and perennial artichoke plants, and the differences between the artichokes you buy fresh and the ones you buy canned, jarred, or frozen. For instance, the majority of artichokes are perennials. Pat mentioned that her company is developing stronger and larger annual varieties for a number of reasons, like "reduced pest pressure" as stated in this article. It seems like a really smart idea.

She also reiterated several times that artichokes are technically flowers. The reason this is important is that they dry out as soon as they're harvested. She recommended cutting off some of the stem and submerging the things in water for a day prior to cooking in order to rehydrate the essentially dried flowers. We tried this on Monday and I think it worked extremely well.

The tour gives you an opportunity to harvest your own artichoke from a pre-picked field. We were running low on time and only had a few minutes to choose so Chris and I decided to just enjoy the scenery instead. Besides, we were planning on buying a bag of artichokes to take home with us, and two more probably wouldn't fit in our suitcase...

Pat gave us a choice between visiting another field/facility or visiting a locally owned and operated artichoke farm and stand and nearly everyone on the bus excitedly chose FARMSTAND. It was refreshing to be surrounded by a group of people not only excited about food but excited about something that's vegetarian (ie: artichokes). She gave us "three minutes" so swarm through the farmstand. Chris and I can't go through any such place as unique as that in just three minutes, so we grabbed something to drink and decided to return after we were done at the festival. Besides, it was really busy.

According to their website, Pezzini Farms has been producing "green globe" artichokes for 50 years. Their stand sells a number of other things as well, including fresh fruits and vegetables, unique gourmet foods, condiments with artichokes in them, condiments for artichokes, housewares, and things for your sweet tooth. They ship their artichokes nationwide, too, have a lot of their items for sale online, and even have a rewards program through Punch Tab.

They also have a food truck located on premises. The Choke Coach, as its called, serves a number of things containing their famous "French Fried Artichokes." You can also buy the batter mix or pre-fried frozen artichoke hearts at their farmstand. And, much to my surprise, their French Fried Artichokes are vegan! We ordered them in a couple of wraps, skipping the ranch that usually comes on them. It was a bit plan (obviously, due to a lack of ranch), but still very good and surprisingly satisfying. 

The whole weekend was so, so exciting, fun, and relaxing. My cat was having a miserable time at the pets hotel, though, and while I didn't think a tick about work, I sure was thinking about her. The poor thing refused to eat and had to go to the vet on site twice. She ultimately cooperated, but I was worried for her practically the whole time. We stopped in Santa Cruz the day before the festival, having fun at the boardwalk, and stayed in Pacific Grove on the other side of Monterey while we were there for the weekend. On our way back to grandma's house, we stopped at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which I'll show you pictures of later.

I had such a wonderful time that weekend. It makes me want to go back and do the exact same thing again. And maybe I will. Thank you, Castroville!

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