A garden which grows true to its own laws is not a wilderness, yet not entirely artificial either.
— From A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.
The herb beds my aunt Marie tended on the farm for decades were always left to express themselves freely each year after a certain point in August. In spring the beds would be thinned, edged, weeded and fertilized to establish some sort of order, and holes were filled with annual varieties of faster-growing, more tender herbs. There were huge beds of catnip that was pointless to everyone but the bees, lavender bushes so old and leggy they looked like bonsai cedar trees and clumps upon clumps of garlic chives that spread more each year. Marie also grew fennel, expecting a certain number of volunteer plants from the year before supplementing them with newly-seeded bulbs in the spring. She used the fennel at every stage; valuing the fronds as a staple in her mixed greens, which was sold in half-pound bags on the stand that her husband, John, rebuilt after Hurricane Bob.
By mid-September, the fennel that was left in Marie’s herb beds would be standing six feet tall with golden blossoms tightly packed together at the pinnacle of each plant. It was not uncommon to find a butterfly napping face down in a blossom like a drunk passed out in a bar after an overdose, or to see honeybees plummet to the ground, sated from their gluttonous feast. You could walk along the row brushing the overgrown blossoms and your shirtsleeves would be streaked with bright yellow pollen. The best method for harvesting pollen is to cut the colorful blossoms and hang them upside down above a sheet tray lined with newspaper or parchment. After about three weeks when all the pollen had dropped, you can store the magical powder in a small jar, and then pick the seeds from the dried, bare blossoms, reserving them for a multitude of uses.
Fennel pollen is prized by our nation’s top chefs, comparable to saffron in scarcity and potency but even harder to find. Much like fresh truffles, a small sprinkling to finish a dish gives a major flourish to what would otherwise be simple and bland. Upscale restaurants can fetch $150 for a shallow bowl of house-made fettuccine with a butter sauce, finished with white truffle shaved over the top. I have had the pleasure of enjoying pasta this way; the warmth and richness of the butter pulls the woodsy, nutty flavors from the truffle into its silky existence. Truffles are decadent, nearly impossible to procure and extraordinarily expensive. I don’t think fennel pollen will ever be considered decadent, but it is costly and if you aren’t harvesting it yourself, good quality fennel pollen can fetch upwards of two or three hundred dollars per pound.
The humble fennel bulb is known throughout much of Europe and California as a wild plant that grows vigorously along walking trails and in pastures. Its abundance and ease of harvest in the wild has made it a staple in the traditional recipes of peasants, especially in those countries bordering and warmed by the Mediterranean. When hiking in the central valley of California, a friend and I would pick fennel seeds from spent, wild plants as a breath freshener while we snaked our way up a small bluff and his dog gorged on fallen avocados from nearby orchards. I realized then his dog was getting a better deal. Fennel is a plant of strong flavors yet has little nutritional value, partly explaining why it has not become a staple in the modern diet. Fennel grows quickly and keeps very well, making it easy to distribute widely, but humans realized early on that to meet the needs of their growing civilizations they needed more carbohydrates and nutrient-dense foods as staples. In the 16th century fennel began to be cultivated and even then only in areas where populations had developed enough to provide their inhabitants their basic nutritional needs. Fennel’s medicinal qualities have long been valued; the Greeks used it to make tinctures to treat a variety of ailments including eye infections. Fennel has also been used to flavor liquor in many cultures and is widely believed to aid digestion in any form.
Fennel is a unique entity, a loner in a sense, an ingredient that pairs well with almost anything, all the while acting the part of the underdog. Fennel seeds are an ideal collaborator with pork, always toasted first in a hot pan with oil, added to sausages or ground and massaged into a slow-cooked shoulder. Raw fennel bulb shaved, lightly dressed with lemon juice and oil, served alongside bay scallops and rock salt could start every meal for me, with the raw, crunchy ribbons balancing the sweet scallops perfectly. The fronds, which are fernlike, brilliantly green and abundant on home-grown bulbs but less available on bulbs bought at market, can be eaten raw, made into a simple salsa verde or quickly fried in hot oil then salted and used to add architecture to a plate. They even taste a bit like French fries. When I have fennel pollen on hand, my favorite dish in the world comes together: a perfect filet of sole cooked in parchment paper with a pat of butter, a sprinkling of salt and a squeeze of lemon. When the fish is just barely cooked through, I open the parchment, sprinkle pollen generously over the white flesh as if adding fresh black pepper, then enjoy a simple, satisfying meal.
Fennel Salad with Olive Oil and Lemon Juice
One fennel bulb, trimmed of stem
2 tablespoons good quality olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper
Cut the fennel bulb in half, trimming the core as needed. With a sharp knife or a mandolin, shave thin ribbons of fennel about an eighth or sixteenth of an inch thick. Place in a large salad bowl and toss vigorously with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and finishing with a hearty dose of black pepper. Serve with raw fish, braised chicken or rabbit or alongside grilled white-fleshed fish, always with a big dollop of garlicky aioli.
Long-Cooked Pork Shoulder with Fennel Seed
One three-pound pork shoulder, preferably skin on and bone in
8 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons chopped salted anchovies
3 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon dried chili flakes
2 tablespoons lemon zest
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 325 degrees and position an oven rack about 12 inches from the oven’s ceiling. Remove the pork shoulder from refrigeration for at least 30 minutes to come up to temperature. In a small pan, toast the fennel seeds in the olive oil until they become fragrant then set aside; this should take about a minute over high heat. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic, anchovies, fennel seeds, chili flakes and lemon juice to a rough paste. Remove with a rubber spatula to a small mixing bowl, add lemon juice and check for seasoning, it should be very salty; add salt and pepper as needed. Rub all over the shoulder, adding olive oil to the pounded mixture if necessary to make an oily base. Allow to marinate on the counter for another 30 minutes, then bake in the low oven on a roasting pan, with a half an inch of water added to the bottom of the pan. Baste once an hour and cook for three and a half hours, reducing the heat to 300 after two hours. Remove from oven, allow roast to cool for 20 minutes, then pull or carve pieces off with your hands or a knife onto a serving platter. Serve alongside beans and rice with plenty of hot sauce.