Allow me to introduce you to one of Provence's most iconic springtime dishes, artichokes à la barigoule. Maybe you've heard of it—tender young artichokes braised in white wine and olive oil, with onions, carrots, and other aromatics. It's light and bright, thanks to the acidity of the wine and the hoard of vegetables, yet also rich and deep, a quality that develops as the vegetables stew until completely tender. The dish is similar to Roman carciofi alla romana, another famous Mediterranean recipe for artichokes braised with olive oil.
Did you know, though, that it's named for a type of mushroom? While it's called the barigoule in France, it is referred to as the saffron milk cap in English and Lactarius deliciosus among biologists. Most accounts of the dish's history say that artichokes à la barigoule were originally made with this specific mushroom, but as that fungus became increasingly rare, so too did its inclusion in the dish.
It's a perfectly believable story, but I'm pretty sure it's not the full one. More likely is that before the barigoules were omitted from artichokes à la barigoule, they were first added to it. That is, a mushroom-free dish called artichokes "à la barigoule" likely predated the version with the barigoules, which itself predates the current version without them. Confusing, no?
The research that led me on this meandering path of barigoule history started with reviewing recipes online from both French- and English-language sources. Most of them don't bother to give any explanation of the dish or its name, and just offer some spin on the mushroom-free version that's popular now; a few go a little deeper to explain the barigoule backstory, but only go so far as to say the original dish was made with mushrooms. I also cracked each and every French cooking tome I own, from Larousse to Escoffier, Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie to Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Some had recipes for artichokes à la barigoule and some didn't. Among those that did, the older ones, like Larousse and Escoffier, included mushrooms in their recipes, with no indication that it could or should be done otherwise. In each case, they called for a stuffing of duxelles, a sautéed mince of mushrooms. These sources lent support to the idea that the mushrooms were once de rigueur.
In my English translation of La Bonne Cuisine, a legendary 1927 French cookbook, the recipe headnote for artichokes à la barigoule is explicit about the mushroom requirement. "Recipes for this [dish] are found in menu collections from 1750," it starts. "There are some minor variations in the method of preparing this reputed dish, but what never changes...is a special stuffing known as 'duxelles.'"
If La Bonne Cuisine and other trusted sources claimed that mushrooms have always been included in the recipe, it seemed likely to be true. But I'd already started to find other examples that undermined this. In my copy of Vieii Receto de Cousino Prouvençalo, an old cookbook written in both French and Provençal, and one of my most trusted sources on traditional Provençal recipes, there's a rendition of the dish that's as simple as can be: artichokes braised in olive oil with water, garlic, maybe a little onion, and a bay leaf or two. Not a mushroom in sight.
Elizabeth David, in French Provincial Cooking, helps fill in the picture. "This method of cooking artichokes seems to be one of the oldest of Provençal dishes," she writes. "There are many versions, and in the course of time it has been elaborated to include all sorts of extra ingredients, but Provençal cooks mostly agree that it is best in its primitive form." In her recipe, young artichokes are first braised in a mixture of olive oil and water until the water has cooked off and the artichokes are tender; they're then allowed to continue cooking in the remaining oil, essentially frying at this point. When they're done, they're as crisp and golden as Roman-Jewish artichokes. The frying step is slightly different from what I've seen elsewhere (even Vieii Receto de Cousino Prouvençalo ends with tender braised artichokes, not fried ones), but the recipe is consistent with the idea that the original version of this dish had no mushrooms at all.
A final data point: This French culinary website, seemingly from a dusty and forgotten corner of the old internet and admittedly of unknown reliability. I wouldn't be surprised if the link breaks one day, but what the author of the site says is that the recipe has changed significantly over the centuries. Exactly why the dish was named after barigoule mushrooms is unknown, but it wasn't because it originally included them. Instead, it's likely it was because the artichokes were cooked in a style similar to the way barigoules were prepared at the time: trimmed like a mushroom cap, brushed with oil, then grilled. Eventually, Provençal cooks, inspired by the name, decided to make a mushroom stuffing for the artichokes, and the mushroom version—the one many sources cite as the original—was born. That lasted for a while, making its way into books like Larousse and Escoffier and convincing Madame E. Saint-Ange, the author of La Bonne Cuisine, that it had always been that way. And then, just as quickly the barigoules went away, an inadvertent twist that returned us to the dish's mushroom-free roots.
Here, I'm giving two recipes. The first is for the dish as it tends to be prepared today, with artichokes braised in white wine and olive oil, with onions, carrots, garlic, and herbs; take away the carrots and chicken stock that I also add to it, and you have something very close to the original, pre-mushroom version. In the second recipe, I return to artichokes à la barigoule's middle period: each cap is stuffed with mushroom duxelles, wrapped in thin slices of pork belly, and then braised.
(Old and New) Mushroom-Free Artichokes à la Barigoule
To make this version, the first step is to trim the artichokes down to their most tender edible parts. It's traditional to use tender young artichokes, which haven't yet formed an inedible furry choke and feature an inner core of leaves that are tender enough to eat. If you use full-grown artichokes, as I have in the photos here, you'll need to trim them all the way down to their edible hearts and stems (either leaving them each in one piece with the stem still attached, or with the stem cut off and trimmed separately). I offer instructions for each method in my artichoke knife skills guide (for small artichokes, follow the section on prepping them for Roman-Jewish fried artichokes).
Cleaning the artichokes is the hardest part, and with practice, even that isn't difficult. The next step is to cook them. I start by sweating onions, carrots, and garlic in olive oil until they begin to turn tender. Then I add dry white wine to the pot and simmer it until the alcohol mostly cooks of. In goes some chicken stock (you could keep it vegetarian by adding vegetable stock), and the artichokes themselves. A bouquet garnis of parsley, thyme, and bay leaves adds herbal notes.
I leave the whole thing to simmer, covered, until the artichokes and all the other vegetables are very tender, which takes roughly half an hour.
After that, I use a slotted spoon to remove all of the vegetables, leaving the cooking liquid behind. I continue to simmer the broth until it's reduced and slightly syrupy, then whisk in a little butter and herbs to finish it off.
To serve the barigoule, all you have to do is spoon the sauce back onto the vegetables.
Artichokes à la Barigoule With Mushrooms
The mushroom version differs in a few key details. First, when I sauté the aromatic vegetables, I do it in a combination of olive oil and the rendered pork fat of diced pancetta. Pancetta isn't a French ingredient, but it's the closest thing to French salted pork belly that most of us in the United States can find.
After adding the white wine and cooking off most of its alcohol, I add the artichokes, which I've stuffed with the mushroom duxelles. Duxelles are minced mushrooms, like cremini, that are sautéed with minced shallots and herbs to make a pâté-like texture. To hold the duxelles in and prevent them from falling out during cooking, I cover each stuffed heart with a paper-thin slice or two of pancetta, then tie it on with kitchen twine.
All of this gets braised just like the mushroom-free version until tender.
To finish the dish, I remove the twine from the hearts, being careful to keep the duxelles and pancetta in place, and sear it pancetta-side-down until the pork is crispy. I finish the braising liquid just like in the no-mushroom version, reducing it down and then whisking in some butter and herbs.
It's a richer, deeper, fancier version than the one without mushrooms or pork. It's difficult to say which is better. One is heartier and more full-flavored, thanks to the pork and mushrooms, but the other is lighter and cleaner, with a more artichoke-focused flavor. In the end, you can do it however you want. History has shown they both deserve a place on the table.