Wild like fennel
Fennel is a glorious, delicious plant with three main varieties. There’s wild fennel, which is such a prolific grower that, in many areas, it’s considered a weed. It flowers furiously – useful if you want to collect the pollen – and you often find it in NSW growing by the sides of main roads, in places where there’s a good water supply and pretty much anywhere the wind blows. I’ve been known to stop at the side of a highway with some scissors, facing the ire and horn tooting of truck drivers, to collect the flowers to take back to my restaurant, Berta. Bronze fennel is another variety of the plant used for its seeds and flowers, the feathery fronds a beautiful dark, almost-purple colour. It’s more manageable to grow and is also very pretty. Then there’s Florence fennel, known too as sweet or bulb fennel, from which we get fennel bulbs that are basically a cluster of leaf stems, much like celery. The bulbs are either female, round and bulbous, or longer, thinner and male.
A member of the apiaceae family – a group including carrots, parsley, parsnips, chervil and dill – fennel has a distinct aniseed flavour. There’s an organic compound in the seeds also found in star anise and anise, the flavour of aniseeds being very similar but ever-so slightly sweeter and subtler. In terms of taste, they have similarities to liquorice, but, surprising to me, this is an unrelated plant.
Fennel is a perennial, but the actual bulb from Florence fennel remains at its best from April through to June. The plant is self-seeding and grows well in all climates, especially in full sun; its only requirement is that it tends to be fussy regarding its water intake. The bulb grows above ground and takes about three months to reach full maturity, at which stage it's cut off at the root to harvest. It’s said that fennel plants, apart from having a tendency to take over, don’t grow well next to other vegetables or herbs, yet are very happy beside fruit trees.
Fennel is an ancient plant indigenous to the Mediterranean – you can find references to it dating back to Greek mythology. It's rooted in the food and drink of that area as well; it’s one of the three main herbs found in French absinthe and is often used alongside anise in Greek ouzo. In Italian cooking, you’ll find fennel classically paired with pork, and it’s also rife in the art of salumi making. Within all those areas, too, is a great tradition of pairing fennel with seafood. It's often something as simple as a whole fish stuffed with the fronds, grilled over an open fire that’s fed with the stalks, thus imparting a smoky fennel aroma.
It has a medicinal history as well, with the ancient Romans regarding fennel as the herb of sight. More recently, you’ll find it used as an ingredient in tonics that are said to help with gripe. Anecdotally, it’s even said to be good for breast-feeding mothers. Fennel seeds are also used as an aid to digestion; in India, roasted seeds are served after the meal, both for digestion and also to freshen the breath. This happens in Italy too, but as pieces of raw fennel served at the end of the meal.
Fennel and friendly flavours
Fennel is such a useful plant, everything can be utilised, from the bulb, stalks, fronds, seeds, flowers and pollen. The bulb is delicious raw, with a subtle flavour that’s refreshing and crunchy, perfect with bagna cauda, and cooked when you can char or roast it slightly, giving it a sweet, almost caramel-like flavour. The stems are always put to good use in our kitchen, added to stocks, sauces and braises, and impartially suited to both meats and seafood. I love using the fronds in salads and salsa verdes. Once, we even made a delicious fennel gelato using the fronds to give a beautiful green hue.
The pollen of the plant is also most useful, a tiny pinch sprinkled over anything imparts a fairly strong fennel flavour. Plus, I’d be lost without the delicious and most versatile flavour of the seeds; it’s one thing that appears in an almost obsessive fashion in the food I cook. I love their flavour and texture and am convinced there’s nothing that they don’t go with. One of the greatest breads we made was a traditional Sicilian bread, rimacinata, made with durum wheat flour and a mix of poppy, sesame and fennel seeds, a dense and chewy loaf with the most aromatic flavour. The seeds are excellent in a pickle, great crushed and rubbed on the skin of the suckling pig we roast on a weekly basis, and they work beautifully with all manner of seafood. I’ve even been known to slip them into my Sri Lankan crab curries. Is there anything fennel can’t do?
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson.