There was a lot of interest yesterday when I mentioned that I dry fennel flowers to use in cooking. I maybe didn’t make it clear of was describing the wild fennel that grows all over the Mediterranean and not Florence or bulb fennel that is eaten cooked as a vegetable or raw in salads.
I learned about picking and drying the flowers to use with roast potatoes when I was helping some friends with their grape harvest, before we lived here in Lazio. When I tasted them added to particular dishes I was determined to grow and harvest my own flowers. It is one of the wild ‘crops’ that many people go to the countryside to collect, but having them in the garden means I can harvest the flowers when they are in peak condition, with the flower open but not beginning to form seeds.
I cut the whole flower head from the plant and then in a cool place I cut the flowers carefully and let them dry on a tray. Once dry they can be crumbled between the fingers to obtain the pure yellow petals. I sometimes push the dried flowers through a sieve; quite a lot of green gets through too, but it all seems to be packed with flavour so I don’t mind. Purists would want only the pure yellow petals and stamens and if you’re buying it ready done the colour will tell you how much impurity there is in the mix. Pure gold means a price to match!
I use mine in pasta with porcini, sausage risotto, and as mentioned above sprinkled on roast potatoes just before serving and on grilled meats.
It is the secret ingredient of Porcetta the whole boned and rolled roast pig that is traditional in Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. Some salami also have fennel flowers as an ingredient.
The fresh flowers can be added to salads for an intense aniseed flavour; the seeds can be used in breads and curries.
Wild fennel is the primary food source for the caterpillar of the Swallowtail butterfly, so if I see the caterpillars I leave them undisturbed as they don’t do any damage in the garden and I love seeing these butterflies in the garden. The flowers are also popular with masses of tiny spiders that I find all over the table I work on when preparing the flowers. Hover flies seem to be the main pollinator, at least in my garden they are.
The swallowtail feeds on nectar, especially from Lavender, Perovskia and Verbena, but she lays her eggs exclusively on fennel.
Do you grow fennel, if so how do you use it?