In the days before the Internet really got going I used to cut out newspaper articles that interested me. They gather dust in files mostly, but recently I had a look through and rediscovered a piece by Philippa Davenport – one of my food writer heroines – on fiore di finocchio, dried and powdered fennel flowers. These are harvested from wild fennel, not the cultivated bulb variety.
Philippa went fennel flower picking in Visso, a town to the south of me in Le Marche. Here’s what she wrote:
‘Although fennel stalks and seeds are good allies to the cook, they pale beside fennel flowers, which can be used like the seeds but to infinitely greater effect. The flavour and aroma are much more complex: intense yet subtle, beautifully balanced, well rounded and lingering, a glorious three dimensional experience’.
And I’ve been obsessed ever since.
First I was able to track some down at La Fromagerie, a wonderful delicatessen just off Marylebone High Road in London – which at £9 for a 10g jar set me off on a mission to make some of my own.
Luckily, my pals Clare and Caimin have a field full of wild fennel, undisturbed by sheep or beady eyed, foraging neighbours. The challenge has been to decide when the flowers are at just the right stage of full bloom, and the rain we’ve been experiencing – how the heck is one supposed to sun-dry flowers when the house feels like it’s been transported to the Yorkshire Dales in Autumn?
Pick pollen rich flowers first thing. You’ll need scissors as the stalks are quite tough and they can’t be nipped off with your fingers. Spread the flower heads on tray or clean tea towel – just something big enough so the flowers aren’t crowded and you can move them easily. If the sun is very hot, park them in the shade, and bring them in at the end of the day. After about six days the flowers will be dry enough to crumble into a coarse powder. Store in airtight pots.
I’m not sure it’s worth doing this with wild fennel growing in cooler climates – the plant really needs hot sunshine to produce an intense flavour. In Italy fennel flower powder isn’t widely available; I haven’t come across it in the shops but you can find it online and if you live in America you can buy fennel pollen through Amazon.com. It seems to be popular with cooks in Abruzzo, Lazio, Le Marche, Sicily, and Tuscany, where it is used to flavour salami, porchetta and grilled fish.
So far, I’ve mashed up the powder with butter and put it under the skin of a chicken prior to roasting it and taken to adding it bean stews – both delicious. Tonight I’m going to try fennel (bulb and flower) and brown shrimp risotto.