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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Great food and fun at the Castroville Artichoke Festival

Sometimes the sheer number of festivals I'd like to attend in the Bay Area can feel overwhelming:

Artisan Cheese Festival - March
Stockton Asparagus Festival - April
Maker Faire - May (attended 3 times)
Calavaras Jumping Frog Jubilee - May
Union Street Eco-Urban Festival - June
San Jose Obon Festival - July (attended once)
Gilroy Garlic Festival - July
Courtland Pair Fair - July
Fresno Fig Fest - August

Most years I'm lucky if I make it to one. But this year I was going to attend the Castroville Artichoke Festival sponsored by Ocean Mist Farms no matter what. I was so determined that even when my foodie friend Carl said he may or may not be able to meet me there, I decided to go alone. And I was in good company! There were people who came from as far away as Los Angeles, Chicago and Denmark to attend the festival.

FIrst of all I have to say I was shocked at how easy it was to get to Castroville and the festival. I took HWY 17 south, HWY 1 south turned left onto Merritt Street directly off HWY 1, drove 4 blocks, parked and walked the final block to the festival gate.

It took one hour to get there from San Jose. On weekends, especially when the weather is perfect, traffic can be a bear going over the hill (HWY17) towards Santa Cruz so I left just after 10:00 AM, made a stop for gas then hit the highway to beat the beach-goers who would likely clog up HWY 17 by noon.

Upon my arrival street parking was so plentiful I was able to park just a block and a half from the festival gate. The parking was free but there was a $10.00 admission fee to attend the fair.

Just some of the food available at the Castroville Artichoke Festival.

I came for the food. Carl was doing a huge bike ride that morning but said he would be coming after he was done and he'd be bringing his wife and daughter. But then the ride went long so he had to cancel. No worries, I completely understood.

But the only bad thing about going to a food fair alone is that you can only eat so much. The ideal situation would be to come with three friends so you can order four things and sample each of them. Since I was alone, and hadn't brought any tupperware and a chilled ice chest in the trunk of my car, I had to choose wisely.

The Artichoke Taquitos were soooooo tempting! I saw someone eating one. The crisp, golden brown, deep fried exterior was filled with ooey gooey cheese and chunks of artichoke on the inside. An order consisted of two taquitos for $8.00. Each looked around 10" long. I asked if I could order just one instead of two and was told with a smile "Sure you can, but the price is still $8.00 for one." Dude! Way to crush a girl's dream. So with regret, I passed on the taquitos.

They both tasted as good as they looked!

Instead I played it safe ordering a basket of deep fried artichoke hearts ($8.00) and went a little wild trying an artichoke cupcake ($3.00)! After grabbing a seat, breaking out my macro camera lens, and photographing my order at a communal picnic table, I offered some of the hearts to the people sitting beside me. They happily obliged which I was grateful for because I hate throwing away food. There was no way I could eat the entire order and a cupcake all by myself!

The cupcake was light, delicious and moist! You could see bits of artichoke in the cake but I was a little disappointed that I couldn't taste them. Think carrot cake or zucchini bread. Its flavor was a light spice cake. It was so good I ate the whole thing.

There was also non-artichoke fair food too like tacos, burritos, quesadillas, curly fries, teriyaki chicken, corn dogs, classic french fries and more.

After dining I toured the rest of the fair.

There were lots of classic cars on display. This was my favorite. A 1950 Dodge Coronet owned by Joe Micheli Sr. I loved the clean, understated, classic look and the color. You'll see a profile shot of it in the montage below between two blue cars.

The thing is, I don't even really care about cars but these were all so beautifully maintained and restored it was like looking at works of art. Take this 1934 Dodge, 4 door owned by Robert L. Marcos. Gorgeous. And red. And perfect.

Some, like this purple, Oldie '54 II, Chevrolet, pickup owned by Gilbert Casares, were jaw dropping. The paint job was incredible. Technical specs can be found in this Lowrider article.

There were literally dozens upon dozens of cars and trucks to look at. If you have a beautifully maintained or restored classic car you can register to display your car too. There's a nominal fee that entitles you to two free fair admission tickets and you must leave your car there during the festival hours. I'd imagine it's just a lot of fun chatting with all of the other car owners, most of whom are members of the Castroville Midnighters Car Club.

When I arrived Berta Olivia y El Mariachi Mexicanisimo had just begun performing. Berta Olivia is a well known, award winning, ranchera vocalist. Her website says: "Whether she is pounding out a “grito” or tinkling away at a bolero or balada, she is Mariachi, and yet she’s Ranchera with a dab of Cumbia added for good measure."

Even though she was singing in Spanish, and I don't understand Spanish, I could tell right away Berta was a great performer and she was also very entertaining. She received a great laugh from the crowd when, between songs, she welcomed the audience (in both English and Spanish) and reminded us to turn every 15 minutes while watching the show so that they we would get an even tan :D

And there was plenty of creativity on display at the Ocean Mist Agro Artichoke Food Sculpture Contest. There were many more veggie sculptures but these were some of my favorites. How fun are they? Entrants had three hours to construct their sculptures onsite. The winner was chosen at the end of the competition and over $6500 in prize money was awarded! Judging was broken down into professional and non-professional categories, individuals and teams as well as adult, high school, middle school and grammar school categories by age. Congratulations to the winners and to all of the entrants for creating such fun and whimsical designs.

The stilt walker was so tall!

Pets aren't allowed but this service dog arrived in festival colors.

This was fun! An artichoke eating contest. Each contestant was given a pre-weighed plate of artichokes and three minutes to eat as much as they could. It wasn't as fast paced as the famous Fourth of July Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest but it was just as much fun, and far less gross to watch. Three minutes later their plates were re-weighted and the winner was. . . *insert drum roll here*. . .   Why the previous six time champion who even had a huge artichoke winner's belt! Hugo (20 oz) joined second place finisher Joe (19 oz) and third place finisher Joann (15 oz) to receive their winners' certificates. That makes Hugo a seven time champion!

The Artichoke Festival is a family friendly event. There were lots of rides for the kids. Tickets could be purchased at this colorful booth.

The most unusual were the big, inflatable, clear plastic balls that kids were zipped into, inflated then rolled onto a wading pool so they could crash into each other. There were more bouncy houses and slides than I could fit into a single picture and some small amusement park rides for kids like the spinning tea cups and the ship that swings.

There was a farmer's market. I was going to buy some artichokes but decided to wait until I was leaving so I wouldn't have to carry them around all day.

For a fee there was wine, beer and tequila tasting! The wine growers I spoke with, Cima Collina, Otter Cove, and Chateau Marie Antoinette, all use grapes grown in Monterey County to produce their wines. Ale and beer lovers could enjoy 8 different samples by Marina English Ales Microbrewery.  And tequila lovers weren't left out. Alderete was there with shots ready to go.

But the highlight of the festival for me was the $5.00 Field Tour. I'd read about it online and knew I wanted to get out there in the dirt and see the artichoke plants up close and personal. We boarded the bus and took off for three stops on an hour long tour with our guide Lionel Handel.

History: On the tour we learned it was the Italians who brought the perennial Green Globe artichokes to Castroville in the 1920's. While immigrants from other countries may have tried first, they didn't bring the type that were able to flourish in California's soil and weather conditions so it was the immigrants from the first country to successfully to bring the right variety and raise them, not the first to try, who are credited with creating the artichoke industry in Castroville.

Types: We learned there are two kinds of artichokes.

Seeded (annuals) are hybrids. The seeded artichoke plants produce in 45 days. They can be easier to grow and can produce more artichokes per acre than the perennial plants.

After harvesting, seeded plants are mowed then plowed under creating their own compost. The benefit of using the seeded annual plants is that they can be timed to produce on a different cycle than the perennials. Seeded have the benefit of producing off-season so fresh artichokes can be had in late summer or early fall, well outside the normal production time for perennial artichokes.

Seeded are a rotated crop meaning a different harvestable crop (like lettuce or cauliflower) will be grown in the same fields so as not to deplete the soil by planting artichokes over and over again.

A seeded field after harvest.

Perennials are grown by separating the crown (roots) of an existing plant. A new plant won't produce until its second year. The perennials can live for many years. Online I read that 5-10 is the typical age for commercial plants though they can live as long as 10-20 years. While their weight of yield per acre may be lower than the seeded variety, they produce "meatier" artichokes.

Irrigation: Water is at such a premium that all of the crops we saw are watered by drip irrigation. We also learned that many fields in Castroville are irrigated with water obtained from the Castroville Sea Water Intrusion Program where waste water is cleaned and recycled to be used to irrigate crops.

Pests: While deer will eat the centers of artichokes while still attached to the plant, the crops worst pest is called a Plume Moth. The adult moths cause no harm but in its larval stages it will chew through the exterior of leaves, stems and buds. By doing this it gains access and burrows into the buds damaging the interior edible areas of the artichokes.

Nutrition: Artichokes are high in fiber and potassium. Did you know an artichoke has as much potassium as a small banana?

He taught us so much more about each of these topics. If you take the tour next year you'll learn about each of them in much more depth than I've presented here.

Pezzini Farms, 460 Nashua Road (Just off HWY 1), Castroville, CA 95012

Our second stop was at Pezzini Farms, a grower and purveyor of perennial artichokes. You can enjoy Pezzini artichokes by purchasing them at their farm stand. They also sell to restaurants and if you don't live in the Bay Area you can still enjoy Pezzini's fresh artichokes by ordering them online. They're shipped right to your door!

Lionel took us to the field behind the farm stand and taught us more about the artichoke plants.

New roots (bottom left) and a new bud (bottom right).

He showed us the root system and explained how perennials are grown from splitting the root section called the crown. After the harvest the plants are "stumped" cutting the leaves off near ground level. It's a method used to keep the plants reproducing healthy new leaves and buds for the following harvest.

Inside the farm stand he showed us how the artichokes come in from the field, are dumped into a large bin (upper right) and are then sent down a chute (left) to be separated, using rope lines the smallest fall through the narrow ropes first and the largest make it all the way to the end where the ropes are spaced further apart, into four different sized bins (bottom) for packing.

After leaving Pezzini's we drove over to Sea Mist Farms (part of Ocean Mist Farms, the largest producer of artichokes in the United States). Out in the field Lionel demonstrated how the pickers wear a bag called a canasta, cut the artichokes with a knife and toss them into the canasta over-the-shoulder style. The bags hold up to 85 lbs of artichokes so I don't think I could be a professional artichoke picker. I think I'd collapse at 60 lbs. He gave us the opportunity to try out the bag. One woman did. She got the bag on, cut the choke then overshot the bag when she tried to toss it in so it fell on the ground. We all had a good laugh at her expense :D

At that point Lionel invited us to pick as many artichokes as we could in about a minute and a half. It was seriously like one of those game shows where they put you in the booth of money with the fan blowing the dollar bills around. He said we could take as many as we could carry and if we had a bag of any type to go ahead and fill it up. I had my cloth grocery bag in my purse but no knife. There were only three knives available and I was too slow pokey to grab one so I had to use my hands to twist the baby and small artichokes straight off the plant. It worked pretty well except my left hand ended up covered in sticky goo. It dried pretty quickly and I was able to wash it off later with just soap and water.

Lionel declined accepting any gratuities but encouraged us to feel free to tip our driver. I did because the experience was worth far more than $5.00. So, I tipped what I felt the tour had been worth.

And with that, after a perfectly enjoyable day, I headed back to my car with my bag full of artichokes.

I took my little artichokes home and showed them to hubby.  He commented on their small size and when I said they were baby artichokes he accused me of bringing home the "veal" of artichokes. *Insert eye roll here.* LOL. I made sauteed artichoke pasta three times until I'd used them all up. It was so good. And now I want to go back to buy a case of baby artichokes! The recipe is simple and you can find it by CLICKING HERE.

To recap I would say that the Castroville Artichoke Festival was definitely worth the hour drive and $10 price of admission. The only thing I'll do differently next year is make sure more friends come with me so I can sample more of the food! My only regret is that I'm still wondering if I made the right decision choosing the deep fried artichoke hearts over those cheesy artichoke taquitos. LOL. Next year will be the year of the taquito!

Maybe I'll see you there in 2013!

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