Monday, April 20, 2009

The Artichoke Center of the World

California Highway #1 used to go directly through the heart of Castroville, but there is now a bypass and Castroville's famous sign is seen only by drivers who turn off the main highway to drive through its dusty streets.

If you've ever ordered artichoke a la Bernaise at your favorite restaurant or tossed a few artichoke hearts into your salad, chances are very good that the unique vegetable you are adding to your diet came from Castroville, California, a humble little town in the Salinas Valley.

In fact, 85% of all the artichokes sold in the United States come from Castroville and from the fields in the ten surrounding miles. Castroville, which has long had a sign over its main street claiming to be "The Artichoke Center of the World" is not just shoveling hay. The sign states a simple fact.

This is the time of year for fresh artichokes. In town, you can find them for a dollar each, and that sounds like a pretty good price until you drive over into the Salinas valley and find fresh artichokes--ten for a dollar. They grow like grass here in the cool sunny weather just north of Monterey.

A field near Castroville.

On a recent drive I left posh Silicon Valley, where I saw a license plate that read "MY BEMR" and drove south to Gilroy. At Gilroy--home of the Garlic Festival--I turned west on highway 152, a cool, winding road through vineyards and fields. On route, as I wound into the country, I got behind a truck with the license plate "MOO HAUL." Different world: different vanity plates.

A vineyard near Gilroy.

Pansies growing on a floriculture farm on California Highway 152.

It is hot and dry on the Gilroy side of the hills. But when you reach the top of the Santa Cruz range at Mt. Madonna (elevation 1309 ft) you begin to come down on the ocean side, where the weather is cooler and the crops can soak up more moisture from the ocean breezes. You might turn off at Mt. Madonna Park, a 3000 acre reserve of redwood trees, hiking trails and campsites. I think I went to Girl Scout Camp there one year and managed to have a serious encounter with poison oak, so, I zipped by and on down to Watsonville. Watsonville is the Strawberry Center of the World, so things are quiet there right now. The berries ripen later in the season.

And on to Castroville. In Castroville, the workers come from all over the world. Historically, many come from south of the border, and in town many of the signs reflect the primary language of the working population.

A sign in a Castroville window.

By the way, the city wasn't named for Fidel of Cuba, but for Spanish settler Juan Bautista Castro. Did he grow artichokes in the sandy soil? We don't know. But if you come for the Artichoke Festivale (May 16-17 2009) you might want to stay in Castroville's (one) famous motel:

But, we were having a hot spell and the ambient temperature indicated on the gauge of my Swedish car read 91F degrees. So I headed for nearby Pacific Grove, just a few miles down the road. There, as I turned off the highway, I noticed the temperature had dropped to 73F and I stopped for a stroll along the sand. Even though it was Sunday there were very few people at the beach.

The ocean waves in Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California.

I did see a few odd things. One couple faced the cliffs instead of the sea and seemed oblivious to the beauty of the ocean.

And I found a dog chasing a Frisbee, wearing a life vest! He was moving a lot so I didn't get a great picture of him.

When I asked his owner why the dog was wearing the life vest he said: "Why not?" Well, okay, on a boat maybe, but at the beach? It seemed like a sissy kind of thing for a dog to do.

After a stop for lunch I headed back over the mountains and home, stopping, of course, for some artichokes at ten for a dollar. Castroville may be a humble town, in the rural Salinas Valley, but it is surrounded by beauty (if you'll only turn around and look for it) and it produces a royal crop for us all to enjoy.

A Field of Dreams in the Salinas Valley.

For more on the Castroville Artichoke Festival go to

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Lena said...

Kristin and I went to the artichoke festival a few years ago. It was pouring rain the whole time and so much fun. I had an artichoke burrito for lunch. It looks like you had a nice drive on Sunday afternoon. Also, thank you for putting me in your blog!

Robin Chapman said...

Hey you work for a vet. Are these doggie life vests common?

Lena said...

I'm not sure how common they are but it doesn't surprise me that people use them. People are protective of their animals and treat them like kids. We had a dog come in yesterday that had a reflective strip on his harness that would light up and flash. Probably not a bad idea for a walk in the dark, I guess.

Robin Chapman said...

Re the doggie life vest: wasn't it a dog that invented the dog paddle????