In the heart of the Casentino valley of eastern Tuscany, a valley famous for being the birthplace of Michelangelo, the countryside is covered with a thick forest of pine, cypress and chestnuts and the bottom of the valley is full of wild herbs and flowers. Italians are known to scout the countryside carefully observing the plants, gauging the maturity of the blossoms and determining the right time to pick the edible plants and flowers they use at the table. In the case of the fennel plant this is when green flowers produce a fine dust of pollen that blows on the warm summer breezes toward the end of July.
A tall perennial herb native to the Mediterranean region, Italians have a classical authority for using fennel (finocchio). Well known since ancient times, fennel was cultivated by the Romans for its aromatic fruit and edible shoots. Like many culinary herbs it has an herbal pharmacopeia with a pharmaceutical lore that is impressive. 12th century writer, composer, philosopher and visionary Hildegard Von Bingen mentions the benefits of fennel in her Causae et Curae, writing “However fennel is eaten, it makes men merry, and gives them a pleasant warmth, and makes them sweat well, and causes good digestion.“ Culinarily this Italian pantry staple is most widely known for its seeds. Finocchiona made of finely ground pork shoulder seasoned with wild fennel, is a classic Tuscan salame and a signature item in a Tuscan antipasto. I particularly enjoy rings of fennel thinly sliced from the bulb, sprinkled with coarse sea salt, drizzled with fresh harvested extra virgin olive oil as part of a pinzimonio platter. Our cousins from the Veneto braise fennel for a perfect side dish.
The pollen of the fennel plant is so highly regarded in the cuisine of Northern Italy that some have been known to say that it is carried on angel’s wings. With an intoxicating aroma (licorice-like, curry) and notes of toasty-sweet hay and honey, it adds an intense flavor and complexity to any dish. Used as a dry rub on meats or sprinkled on fish or vegetables, fennel pollen is often added to rice, pasta and risotto dishes in place of saffron. Each fennel flower contains less than one-quarter teaspoon of pollen (making it expensive and limited) so gauging the maturity of the blossoms and the right time for harvesting the fine dust of the pollen can definitely benefit from some heavenly intervention.