Menfi is one of the capitals of Sicilian agriculture. Its very fertile territory is cultivated with vineyards, olive groves, vegetables: 9000 hectares of dark, sunny land, ranging from 100 to about 400 meters above sea level. More than 600 hectares are cultivated with artichoke. The spiny artichoke of Memphis is very famous, historically, even though most of the artichokes cultivated today in these lands are reserved to modern varieties – tema2000, violet of Provence, some varieties of romanesco – in particular the unarmed ones, without thorns, which are preferred by the market today. The historical ecotype, the thorny one, is still cultivated and very appreciated by gourmets, but undoubtedly it does not live well the competition with hybrids, even three, four times more productive, coming from outside, it is not by chance that there are 10 hectares left. Also in this area of Sicily the genetic erosion of local varieties by the hybrids preferred by specialized agriculture is driving away the traditional local ecotypes.
The spinose of Menfi has been known since at least the nineteenth century, the dedicated land stretched from the river Carboj to the current Foce del Belìce Natural Reserve. It is an autumn variety, the first heads called mammi have an ellipsoidal shape, while the second ones, the spaddi, are ovoid.
It ‘an artichoke of medium size compared to other varieties of autumn, the bracts, or the edible part of the artichoke, have a basic coloration of green and a purple overcolour, in the upper part there are large golden thorns. For this characteristic in the past it was also known as “spinel”. Thorns are undoubtedly an obstacle on the market and require a little patience in cooking, however spinose has many other excellent qualities: it is aromatic, crispy and delicate. It is very sought after for barbecuing, and also for the production of vegetables in oil, caponata and paté. Its high lignin content makes it more resistant to preservation in oil (it does not flake easily) and also more resistant to the intense heat of embers. Artichokes need little water and as they do not need many nutrients they are rarely fertilized with manure. When artichokes are not made, broad beans are cultivated, which again enrich the soil with nitrogen. Harvesting is done manually from the end of November to the end of April. Afterwards, all that remains is chopped. Chopping the dry part of the plant facilitates the recovery operations of the best ovules, previously marked with the coloring at the base of the stump. Traditionally, the end of the productive season is the first of May, when the menfitani gather in the countryside to roast the last remaining artichokes cooked on embers of olive or olive tree pruning. Before being placed on the embers, the artichoke is beaten with all its thorns on a marble base to facilitate the opening of the bracts and is then seasoned with extra virgin olive oil, salt and garlic.
harvesting takes place from December to April. Processed artichokes can be found throughout the year.
Over the years, in Menfi, artichoke farms have given way to vineyards, moreover, since about 30 years new hybrid varieties have undermined the old spiny ecotype and today few companies still cultivate it. The spinosos that are on the market are often not really the traditional ones (it is possible to recognize false traditional ones because they are bigger, and of a less intense violet compared to the spinoso di Menfi). The market for spinoso has remained local, but it can also be found on some stalls in Palermo.
Some producers of Menfi have decided to resume the cultivation of the traditional spinoso, have formed an association and have begun to look for new markets, for fresh artichokes but also for pickles.
Every year the growers of the presidium provide propagation material for other interested farmers, trying to stimulate the cultivation of the spiny artichoke. The objective is to affirm the quality of this artichoke, to safeguard it by increasing the cultivated areas so that it is not lost, to find new markets and to try to avoid, by producing high quality preserves, to sell off artichokes when the market is invaded by other varieties.
For preserves they use local extra-virgin olive oil and the result is exceptional.