Finnochio’s, a San Francisco night club, famed for its drag queens, just failed to make it past the Millennium, having traded for decades on the Italian slang word for homosexual, rent boy even. Why the generic name for fennel took on queer connotations I have no idea; I’m just happy to pay upfront for the culinary satisfaction Finnochio always brings – in all of its forms.
In particular I’m hooked on fennel pollen. It’s a speciality of Tuscany, but it is taken to the next level in Calabria, Italy’s deep south, where they call it “the spice of angels”. It soars way above earthbound fennel seeds.
Hand harvested, like the equally labour intensive saffron, and dried in the sun, it comes at a premium (around £16 for 15g). Understandably, each flower head will only yield about a ¼ teaspoon of creamy yellowy pollen at the most. Yet it offers a defining taste of the Mediterranean summer with a little going a long way. A pinch will provide an explosion of liquorice, anise and citrus, which used sparingly, can add an extra dimension to both sweet and savoury dishes.
Combine it with Himalayan pink salt to create a rub for pork, use it to energise an orange and olive oil cake or simply finish off a pasta dish with a dash. I add it to stocks and soups obsessively.
You could, of course, harvest your own but wild fennel is not at its most intense in my Yorkshire hinterland. And bear in mind, ye who balk at picking wild mushrooms, fennel and poisonous hemlock (remember Socrates) are both in the same carrot family, sharing distinctive umbrella-shaped flower clusters; those of fennel are yellow, hemlock white.
If you’re still keen peruse these instructions by Californian master forager Hank Shaw, one of my go-to gurus in all things wild.
So how does the pollen relate to fennel bulb?
A perennial home favourite of mine has been a fennel risotto with vodka (recipe here) from the River Cafe cookbooks, enhanced of late by the addition of my beloved pollen. It uses those white bulbs we know as Florence fennel, dubbed ‘pregnant celery’ by the writer Maggie Stuckey and adapted to be used as a vegetable, particularly good with fish.
Both wild and domesticated fennel are he same plant, Foeniculum vulgare, the feral stuff only differing because it rarely sets a bulb. Fennel is tough, appropriately enough for giving its name in Greece to Marathon (the place with much fennel). It is herbaceous, meaning it “dies” every year and regrows from the root in spring.
All that rebirth stuff chimes with the mythological (and health promoting) status of finocchio. It was inside a stalk of dried fennel that Prometheus, defying Zeus hid a charcoal lump from the chariot of the sun to bring the gift fire to humankind.
My little pot of fennel pollen is my own gift of pagan sunshine that keeps my kitchen civilised throughout the dreary winter.