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ARTICHOKES : SPANNING THE GLOBE : How a thistle from sunny Spain came to thrive in foggy Castroville

March 09, 1995|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

CASTROVILLE — At first glance--or even second glance--this burg doesn't look like much. Though it is located no more than a couple of miles from the ocean and less than 10 miles from the tourist havens of Monterey and Carmel, it is, in essence, just another Midwestern farm town transplanted to the Pacific Coast.

That, of course, is its charm. Just when you think they've paved the entire state, here is a reminder of California's agricultural history, a reminder of how things used to be. The one main street is no more than a mile long, and what passes for downtown is no more than a couple blocks. There's a junk store, a bar, a small grocery store, an old office building and a turn-of-the-century school converted into a pretty good restaurant. At the highway end of town, there are opposing mini-malls. Though there is a video store, the last picture show is long closed.

Mainly there is fog, a deep, thick fog that for most of the year rolls in just after sundown and lasts until mid-morning. It's a fog that blankets the softly rolling hills and turns even the vivid sea-green of the surrounding fields to monochrome.

But to every place there is a purpose. For Castroville, Calif., that purpose is artichokes.

Roughly 66% of all the artichokes grown in the United States come from within 15 miles of town. Include all of surrounding Monterey County, and that share swells to almost 80%.

How did a spiky plant from the sunny Mediterranean come to dominate this chilly, foggy landscape? After all, if left to its own devices, the artichoke would fairly quickly become extinct here.

It turns out that the fog, a result of the same frigid Japanese Current that makes the nearby Pacific Ocean largely unswimmable and keeps this area from becoming another Silicon Valley, is part of Castroville's magic. The Monterey Bay environment is perfect for growing buds for market.

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Before it found a home in Castroville, the artichoke industry took root in a sand dune-filled area just south of San Francisco. The Italian immigrant farmers, who had grown artichokes as garden vegetables in the city, were devilish workers, trucking in enough manure and top soil so that they could plant the 'chokes in sand.

They were also shrewd marketers. "They pioneered their way through strange markets over the United States," read a 1915 article in Pacific Rural Press, a farmer's magazine, "and built up an extensive trade by sane business methods and sound management."

Among their techniques: including recipe booklets in each box of artichokes. The booklets were, said Pacific Rural Press, "an effort to get those who have been preparing buds in the way most popular in America--that of boiling and serving either hot or cold with some simple sauce--to try them in soups, stews, omelets or baked or fried."

Remember that, until then, almost every artichoke consumed in America had to be shipped in from France. No wonder that the most common ways of serving them were the most ostentatious.

From the dunes of San Francisco, the cultivation spread south to the more fertile fields of the Half Moon Bay area, just north of Santa Cruz. In 1920, the Pacific Rural Press opined: "High tribute is paid to the Italians, who pioneered the way in an untried country. Head work did much more than hard work for them."

In 1922, the magazine reported on a $15,000 banquet given in New York by California growers for "competitors and customers who were fed artichokes and artichoke talk. This is something new in the way of selling a vegetable."

There were roughly 3,000 acres of artichokes planted at that time, and though the fields around Half Moon Bay were better than the sand dunes of San Francisco, there were still problems. First of all, because of the geography of the area, the individual fields were small. And there wasn't enough water. Finally, shipping was difficult, since there were no rail lines nearby. Artichokes had yet to find a permanent home.

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At that time, the land around Castroville was sugar beet country. Part of the Moro Cojo land grant, it was owned by the family of John Rogers Cooper, a New England merchant who had bought it in the 1820s. Cooper, known by the nickname Don Juan \o7 el Manco\f7 because of a deformed left hand, had a life worthy of a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel. Born in 1791 on Alderney Island off the coast of Ireland, he emigrated to the East Coast in 1816. A ship's captain, fur trader, financial backer of mountain men and eventually owner of several large ranchos in Central California, he was also the first foreigner to become a naturalized citizen of the United States of Mexico.

Since 1888, the area--rich, black Salinas River bottomland, expansive, well watered and close enough to Salinas for rail access--had been leased to the Spreckels Company for farming the sugar beets processed at Spreckels' nearby sugar refinery.

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