In French-speaking Switzerland, particularly in the Geneva area, there is a Christmas tradition to serve a side dish made with a thorny thistle-like plant: Le cardon.
Cardons in Switzerland
Resembling and related to an artichoke, thorny cardons (“cardoons,” in English) generally arrived in Switzerland with the Protestants who were fleeing France during the 17th century. However, Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse also describes reports of cardons being found among ancient Roman lake dwellings in Switzerland. Either way, this thistle-like vegetable has a long history in Switzerland.
In terms of production, to help reduce their bitterness, cardons are “bleached.” This involves covering the plants, which can grow to about 1.5-2 meters high, in order to prevent exposure to light. This process allows the cardons to become more white, rather than green.
In 2003, Cardon épineux genevois earned a AOP designation (appellation d’origine protégée) from the Swiss federal government. As such, all of the production of cardon bearing this designation must take place within the canton of Geneva. In Switzerland, it’s the only vegetable to have obtained the AOP designation.
When I attended the Fête de la Tomate near the city of Geneva last May, one of the vendors had jars of cardons for sale. To buy cardons in a jar means you avoid a somewhat tedious process of preparing this tricky vegetable. With fresh cardons, first you have to remove all the thorny and fibrous parts of the stalks. Then, as if that isn’t enough, you need to parboil them for about 25 minutes before baking them.
Most importantly, you have to be careful not to let the cardons turn almost black in color (this happened to me!). To avoid this unappealing transition, as soon as you’ve trimmed and peeled the cardons, put the pieces in a bowl of water with lemon juice. I’ve seen other recipes that also call for boiling them in a mixture of milk and water. Either way, if you want to avoid the hassle, I recommend buying some jarred cardons. Please keep in mind though, it’s cheaper to buy it fresh and do it yourself!
I don’t know how it started, but gratin de cardons—baked cardoons topped with béchamel sauce and grated Gruyère cheese—is a traditional side dish during the Christmas season in Geneva. Otherwise, cardons are not a typical vegetable served at Swiss mealtimes.
Last week, I tried making gratin de cardons for the first time, using fresh cardons purchased at a small specialty shop in the canton of Neuchâtel. To be honest, my kids wouldn’t try it, but I was pleasantly surprised at the taste and texture. I’m considering serving them for Christmas dinner next week, but I will certainly buy a prepared jar of Cardon épineux genevois this time, so I can focus instead on preparing other parts of the meal (perhaps a homemade bûche de Noël?).
If you have any suggestions to share for cooking cardons, please leave a comment below. Thanks in advance for your help! Otherwise, here are some resources to get you started:
- Cardoons, Laughing Lemon
- Recipe: Gratin de cardons, cuisine de saison (in French)
- Recipe: Cardoon Gratin, Saveur (in English)