Tag Archive for: Fennel

The best gifts come in pairs. In the run-up to Christmas the most perfect grazing bolthole has sprung up down the road, from which a portal has opened to a cornucopia of Italian artisan wonders. Living the edible dream as just bottled, grassy new season olive oil from the Abruzzo, Sicilian capers packing a volcanic punch and a whole Tuscan finocchiona (fennel salami) from Cinta senese pigs arrived in the post the other day. All the way from some enlightened middle men in Bermondsey.

Buon appetito then. But first back to that handily placed bolthole. It’s in Hebden Bridge in a former bank building and it’s called Coin. What’s behind the bar’s name? I suggest to co-owners Oliver Lawson and Chloe Greenwood it might be a reference to the ‘The Cragg Vale Coiners’. Up the hill in Heptonstall Shane Meadows is currently filming The Gallows Pole – a BBC adaptation of Ben Myers’ novel about real life 18th century counterfeiters in the Calder Valley. 

Already there’s a craft beer bar in nearby Mytholmroyd named Barbary’s after the alehouse the gang frequented. Or maybe Coin as the French for corner to match the site whose lofty windows look out on two streets? And, of course, in its previous incarnation as Lloyds Bank plenty of small change passed across the counter.

Oliver, poker-faced, agrees it might be any or all of those. He’s more forthcoming about the origins of the charcuterie board we’ve ordered along with a £10 trio of Lindisfarne oysters  and schooners of Garage IPA from Barcelona. 

The imports he’s most proud of are the finely sliced finocchiona, mortadella, coppa and prosciutto di San Daniele that circle a wedge of the bar’s home-made pâté de campagne on our platter. Having worked for the likes of Mana in Manchester and (along with Chloe) the Moorcock at Norland he has a fair handle on quality ingredients and that’s even more important when kitchen facilities are limited.

It’s a similar scenario at Flawd at New Islington Marina, Manchester. As part of their small plate offering Flawd source their cured meats from Curing Rebels in Brighton. It would have been easy for Coin to rely on local stars  Porcus in the hills above Todmorden, but ‘Slow Food Movement’ explorations in Italy left them smitten with the quality they found. 

“We wanted to do something different to anything else in the area,” Oliver tells us as he adds a house pickle accompaniment to the table. “The charcuterie prices are pretty much the same that we would pay for their British equivalent.”

The 100g meat plate is £13.95, a plate of five cheeses (two French, one Swiss, a Cheddar and Todmorden’s very own Devil’s Rock Blue) a tenner, while simple small plates range from £5.50 to £9.50. Our meal eventually costs me an extra £90 on top. Why? Because I was so enamoured of the charcuterie we were served that back home I placed my own order with the UK suppliers and friends of Oliver and Chloe, The Ham and Cheese Company. Formed on a Borough Market stall 15 years ago, they now work out of wholesale maturing rooms in a Victorian railway arch in Bermondsey. All they sell is from a network of small, ultra-sustainable, independent producers from across Italy (plus there’s a small Basque presence also).

The operation has a huge fan base among top London chefs specialising in Italian cuisine – Theo Randall, Joe Trivelli of the River Cafe and Murano’s Angela Hartnett, who says: “What I love about Elliott and Alison is their ability to source the most incredible salumi straight from the producer. The best I have tasted – plus my mother (with Italian roots) agrees!”

What really sold Ham and Cheese Co to me was a blog by Alison on the website entitled The Ethical Abbatoir. Its mission statement is immediate: “The first thing we ask a potential new producer is the number of pigs they slaughter a week. We know that this will often tell us more about the producer, their philosophy, and the quality of their product, than any other question.” This blog piece features their San Daniele provider, Prolongo, a family business that is so wedded to tradition (natural drying and ageing, salting, massaging and larding) that they only produce 7,000 hams a year).

It’s harder to work this way in the UK because the tradition of small-scale animal slaughter that these Italian producers sustain has all but disappeared. 

Not feeling able to run to a 2.3kg whole rare breed Mora Romagnoli mortadella from Aldo Zivieri, I had settled on a more modest finocchiona from Carlo Pieri, who has a small shop in the Tuscan village of Sant Angelo Scalo near Montalcino. He works just four pigs a week and uses a local abattoir he invested in to save it. His octogenarian mum picks all the wild fennel seeds and fennel pollen that season Carlo’s salumi. Check out my paean to fennel pollen.

As it turns out I end up accepting a substitute. Elliott tries to ring me, then texts the news that the next delivery from Tuscany is a week away; I can wait or try, at the same price, a new producer’s fennel salami, 50g smaller but normally more expensive, made from Cinta Senese, the queen of Italian pigs (above), so I’m actually getting a better deal. 

And so it proved. A perfect blend of creamy fat and sweetly cured flesh, the one from the Rosati family’s Azienda Agricola Fontanelle was remarkably even better than the Pieri we first tasted at Coin. We paired it with buffalo mozzarella and doused them in that ‘green’ olive oil I mentioned.

A final word, especially relevant as no shows proliferate across hospitality, by all means do as I did, and work your way through the producer pen pictures on the Ham and Cheese website, revealing a glorious food culture. Maybe even place an order. But do support a small indie like Coin, launching at the most difficult of times. 

I’m going back as soon as I can to road-test the rest of the menu and a whole raft of natural wines. As usual I’ll be making my own Negronis this Christmas, yet I also intend to try one of Oliver and Chloe’s. Before tackling another charcuterie platter, naturally.

Coin, Albert Street, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, HX7 8AH. 01422 847707.

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.

Calabria, source of the finest wild fennel pollen, dubbed ‘spice of the angels

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.

As an alternative, two reliable online sources of authentic fennel pollen are Spice Mountain and Sous Chef.

Fennel pollen and Florence fennel bulb are related but offer different culinary properties

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.