For more than 60 years, the Castroville Artichoke Festival has been a much-anticipated spring event, celebrating the area’s reputation as ‘Artichoke Center of the World.’ (As of today, this year’s event will take place on August 8 and 9. Check the website for updates). A year before the festival began, a young actress named Norma Jeane Mortenson – later known as Marilyn Monroe – became California’s first honorary Artichoke Queen.
During the typical two-day Festival, daily crowds top 20,000 people. Sip and quaff favorite beverages in the Wine, Beer & Spirits Garden, and listen to live music. Watch professional chefs demonstrate how to prepare artichokes and much more, then load up your car with fresh produce from the farmers market.
There’s even an unusual Agro Art competition. Participants create three-dimensional fruit and vegetable sculptures in front of festival attendees, for a chance to win a total of $5,000 cash prizes. Perhaps the best way to understand why Castroville is considered the Artichoke Center of the World is to take a 90-minute educational tour of artichoke fields. The California Artichoke Advisory Board sponsors this activity, with advance ticket purchases required.
There's a good reason why banners throughout Castroville's quaint downtown declare this the Artichoke Center of the World. That’s because 70-80% of U.S. artichokes grow in the area. This perfect growing climate is usually cool and overcast with the peak growing season from March through May, and a smaller harvest in October.
Italian immigrant, Andrew Molera, got things started during the 1920s, when he planted an acre of artichokes on his ranch. Two years later, Angelo del Chiaro and his cousin leased 150 acres from Molera, which significantly expanded the crop size. Within a few short years 12,000 acres in California – most in Castroville – produced artichokes. Today, Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms is the nation’s largest artichoke producer.
While in Castorville during a typical artichoke season, there are several must-visit destinations. The first is family-owned Pezzini Farms, which has grown heirloom Green Globe artichokes (and other crops) for more than eight decades. Inside the open-air farm stand, artichokes of multiple sizes occupy a wall full of waist-high displays. There’s plenty of other fresh produce here too, as well as mouthwatering baked goods and shelves full of pantry items.
No matter what time of year you visit, artichokes star in packaged foods too. Purchase items such as artichoke Parmesan pasta sauce, artichoke seasoning, and artichoke pesto. If you time it right, you may also get to order fresh, fried or steamed artichokes from an onsite food truck.
The other can’t-miss stop is the Giant Artichoke Restaurant (in Salinas, CA). In fact, there’s no way you can miss the enormous decorative artichoke beside the entrance to this eatery, which has operated for decades.
The restaurant is famous for fried artichokes served with a choice of dipping sauces. In addition, try an artichoke dip with jalapeno or spinach; artichoke salad; artichoke and angel hair pasta; meatloaf with roasted veggies and artichokes; or The Giant Artichoke Burger. You may even find artichoke cupcakes on the menu.
If you love artichokes, be sure to visit Castroville when you're in California, for sights and tastes of the freshest artichokes available in the U.S.
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received a complimentary tour and samples, for the purpose of this review. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
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