I’m cheating a little here as this particular Jerusalem artichoke isn’t in my garden – though it soon will be.
It’s growing, a little overenthusiastically, in one of the gardens I look after. So far it’s filled a whole corner of the sizeable veg patch and is doing a Great Escape style bid for freedom by tunnelling under the fence to pop up in the lawn on the other side.
Jerusalem artichokes are not for the faint-hearted. Or those of a delicate disposition. There can be few vegetables quite so irrepressible: they spread like weeds, and they’re eight feet tall so there’s no ignoring them. And they make you fart like a trooper.
So why, in the name of all that’s polite, would you ever consider growing them? Let alone – as I’m doing – swiping a few (with permission, of course) to plant in your own garden?
Because they’re one of the easiest, tastiest and most generous vegetables you’ll ever grow, that’s why. Jerusalem artichokes are that rare thing, a genuinely year-round crop you can harvest as much as you like, any day you like, from Christmas Day to the summer solstice and back again. And you never, ever have to re-sow it: once you have it, like dimples or an inability to stay calm in the face of apostrophe misuse, you have it for life.
The knobbly tubers stay underground like so much buried treasure (albeit rather muddy treasure) waiting amiably for you to come along and dig it up: no need to store, no need to worry about it turning woody or slug munched if you leave it in the ground too long. Forget to harvest and they just multiply some more. I don’t think there’s any other vegetable so easy to grow.
You do need a bit of space, of course: these are giant plants, as you’d expect from close relatives of the sunflower. The stems hit a clear 8ft tall at full height, sturdy enough to act as a windbreak (Jerusalem artichokes make excellent shelter belts for windy allotments) and topped in late summer with cheery smallish sunflowers. Incidentally, the name Jerusalem has nothing to do with the capital of Israel: it’s actually a corruption of the word ‘girasole’, the French for sunflower.
Mind you, anything less like an artichoke of the globe kind is hard to imagine. Jerusalem artichokes are all lumpen Gabriel Oak to globe artichokes’ effortlessly elegant Bathsheba (Alan Bates, Julie Christie, 1967 – never bettered, if you ask me).
They’re muddy, knobbly, ugly – a bit like potatoes, though not so pretty. The variety ‘Fuseau’ is the one you’re most likely to find, described as ‘smooth skinned’ – though it’s all relative, I suppose. It looks just as knobbly as the rest to me. There are red-skinned varieties like ‘Gerard’, and a shorter variety – to about 4ft tall – called ‘Dwarf Sunray’, though I’ve never found it in the UK. In the US, where Jerusalem artichokes (known there as sunchokes) are far more widely grown than here, there are about 70 different varieties to choose from – about time a few of them made it across the pond, if you ask me.
Anyway, the artichoke connection probably comes mainly from their flavour – more than a little reminiscent of their infinitely more sophisticated relatives. And if you’re going for an artichoke flavour I’d far rather peel a Jerusalem artichoke tuber (tip: parboil first, then rub the skins off with your fingers) than fiddle about descaling a thistle.
The flavour is particularly good, too – in fact I’d say that along with the pretty sunflowers it’s the reason everyone should give a corner of the garden (and a little bit more, if they’re not careful) to Jerusalem artichokes.
Cook them into a soup with leeks, potatoes, onions and a good stock; roast them whole in hot fat, like roast potatoes, and mash them up (half and half with spuds works well). Or cut into pieces and fry them with bacon, then toss into a warm salad…. mmmm. Just make sure you’re in forgiving company when you serve them up, as the after-effects are for impolite society only.