by Martha Mosson
Legend has it that King Alexander III of Scotland adopted the thistle as his royal emblem in 1263 after the Scottish victory at the Battle of Largs. Scotland was at war with Norway. The Norwegians had, rather inconsiderately, captured the Hebrides and the Scots wanted them back. King Haakon of Norway sent a fleet of ships carrying an army which landed one night on the beach close to the town of Largs in Ayrshire where King Alexander’s army had gathered. The Scottish army lay asleep, as Scots tend to do after spending the day at the beach, and Haakon hoped to sneak up on them unawares and catch them napping.
The story goes that the Norwegians took off their boots so that they wouldn’t make much noise as they crept up on the snoring Scots. But you guessed it, the Norwegians found themselves in a patch of jaggy thistles, and their cries of pain woke the Scots. Alexander’s army were able to drive off the Norwegians who by this time were hopping about with spines in their feet and swearing a lot in Old Norse.
It’s difficult to believe anyone making such a racket in Largs these days. Largs is, as they say in Scotland, a douce wee toon. If readers outside of Scotland think of Frinton or Bognor Regis only with more rain they won’t be far wrong. And it’s the rain that’s the problem with this story. Like so much else about popular Scottish history, the thistle story is a bit hit and myth.
Admittedly I’m not the world’s most observant person, but I can’t remember ever seeing many thistles outside of gardens. The plant does grow in Scotland of course, but not in any great abundance and Scottish thistles tend to be small plants with tiny flowerheads close to the ground. The reason for this is that the thistle prefers dry summers and well drained soils. Scotland with its rain, bogs and wet moorlands isn’t exactly noted for its dry and sunny climate.
I was surprised when I first visited in Spain to discover that the thistle grows there in great profusion. And not just the shy wee thistles that grow in Scotland, these plants reach up to five feet tall or more and would certainly give any Viking tip-toer pause for thought. There are some twenty five different species of thistle but the best known example of the family, the milk thistle, originates in the Mediterranean region. It is the milk thistle with its large purple flower heads standing proudly on long stalks which is in many ways the definitive thistle. The milk thistle gets its name from the white patches which appear on its leaves and shoots. These patches come from the plant’s milky sap.
Iberia has its own myths and legends associated with the thistle. The eguzkilore (literally: flower of the sun) is a large dried thistle head with a pronounced likeness to the sun. In the Basque country it is placed by the doors of farms and houses in order to protect them against evil spirits, sorcerers, lamiak (creatures rather like mermaids only with bird’s legs instead of fishy tails), the spirits of illness, storms and lightning.
The thistle is a close relative of the artichoke, in fact the artichoke is really just the thistle’s posh cousin. The plant was cultivated as a vegetable in Europe until the end of the nineteenth century. In some parts of Spain it is still used in cooking and in many parts of the country, particularly the north, it is an essential part of the local cuisine.
There is an astounding variety of traditional Spanish dishes made from thistle. The Rioja region in the north of Spain is famous throughout the world for its wines. The region is also home to a number of dishes made from thistle, including cardo con almendras ‘thistle with almonds’ which is traditionally eaten during the Christmas fiestas. Other regions of Spain have their own traditional dishes made from thistle, the Basque Country offers conejo con cardo ‘rabbit with thistle’, while from Aragón there is cardo con nueces ‘thistle with walnuts’ and cardo a la bechamel con piñones ‘thistle in bechamel sauce with pine nuts’. The Galician coast with its great variety of seafood provides cardo con almejas ‘thistle with clams’.
There’s even a thistle cheese. The region of Extremadura in the west of Spain along the Portuguese frontier produces one of Spain’s finest cheeses. The town of Casar de Cáceres gives its name to a sheep milk cheese which, once ripened, has the distinctive feature forming a kind of flat cake or torta with a liquid interior and a hard rind that allows the cheese to flow out when cracked. The sheep milk from which it is made is curdled with thistle flower, and it is then left to age for 60 days. The thin rind splits under the pressure of the spreadable, creamy, almost liquid paste inside. Its colour is yellowish, and its flavour (mildly salty and acidic) and aroma are unique. All of this makes Torta del Casar a truly extraordinary cheese which is traditionally eaten as an appetizer or served at the end of a meal.
The parts of the thistle most usually eaten are the fresh young shoots which can be used in salads or eaten raw but the roots, seeds and the central part of young flowerheads are also edible. The taste of thistle is not unlike that of artichoke, not surprising when you consider that the two plants are close relatives.
There are a number of problems when cooking thistles. The shoots can be rather tough, for this reason it’s important to choose fresh young shoots which are more tender than the older stalks. Old stalks can be somewhat woody in texture. The shoots should be cleaned, peeled and the spines and edges removed, before cooking for at least an hour and a half in salted water which should be kept simmering just below boiling point. It’s the tender inner part of the stalk which you want to keep, trim off the outer layers. Once cooked the shoots can be kept in brine in sealed jars in the fridge and will keep for weeks. Most Spanish supermarkets sell pre-cooked thistle shoots preserved in brine in jars or tins. If ever you’re in Spain and want to look for them, ask for cardo, Spanish for thistle.
Another problem with thistle cuisine is that the shoots easily go black. This can be prevented by rubbing the raw shoots or roots with lemon juice prior to cooking. This stops the oxidation that causes the discolouration.
The thistle was prized by the Romans and the Greeks as a treatment for diseases of the liver, kidney, and spleen. A concoction from the thistle was also known to be an antidote to the poison found in death cap mushrooms. The physicians to the Roman emperors always carried a vial of ‘thistle juice’ to adminster to the emperor in the event that poisonous mushrooms got past his food-tasters. In the first century, the Roman naturalist Pliny wrote that the seedlike fruits of the milk thistle were “excellent for carrying off bile”.
Modern scientific studies seem to show that a preparation made from thistles inhibits the growth of cancerous cells, at least in the test tube. Milk thistle is also believed by many to be beneficial in the treatment of liver diseases. Research in the laboratory has shown that a chemical called silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle sap, might help to treat some liver diseases such as hepatitis and cirrhosis. There have been some clinical trials using silymarin on humans but researchers in the USA say that the results from these trials are not convincing because they did not follow strict scientific methods and only involved very small numbers of people. Reliable clinical trials need to be carried out before doctors can be certain that milk thistle can play any part in treating or preventing liver disease or any types of cancers.
For some the idea of eating thistles may not be too appealing, and if the men in my family are anything to go by, some Scots treat anything green and vegetable like with great suspicion. (I have to keep reminding my sons that a tin of spaghetti hoops does not count as a vegetable.) However health stores sell preparations of milk thistle extract which can be consumed by the vegetable-phobic. These do not seem to have any great side effects, but doctors recommend that pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding avoid them.
There’s so much more to the jaggy thistle than first meets the eye, or even the socks of Vikings.
Cardo con Almedras – Thistle with Almonds
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 kg. fresh thistle shoots, chopped and cleaned
4 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of plain flour
1/5 litre milk
1 cup of olive oil
1 dozen almonds
This dish comes from the La Rioja region in the north of Spain, where it is traditionally served as part of a Christmas meal.
Put the thistle shoots in salted boiling water, add some salt and a generous helping of olive oil. Simmer until the thistle shoots are cooked, this should take around an hour and a half. Once the thistle shoots are cooked, strain the liquid and reserve it. Leave the shoots in the pot. If you have bought pre-cooked thistles, you can skip this stage.
In a frying pan, fry the chopped garlic lightly in a generous helping of oil, add a spoonful of flour and cook until it goes golden. Add the milk little by little, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon. Do not let it boil. Once ready, add the sauce to the pot containing the cooked thistle shoots and return to the heat.
Crush the almonds in a mortar, mix with a little water, then add the mixture to the pot with the thistles and the sauce. Allow to cook for ten minutes. Sprinkle the chopped parsley over the top as a garnish before serving. Perfect as a side dish for an international Burn’s Night Supper!