It’s been 180 years since Thomas Jefferson’s American consul in Florence, Italy, Thomas Appleton by name, sent him some fennel to plant at Monticello. Jefferson did, and the crop has thrived over here in peaceful obscurity ever since.
In California, where the climate is something like the plant’s native Mediterranean region, it has naturalized and is not unusual in cuisine. Easterners have taken longer to embrace it.
I tasted my first fennel as a teenager in an Italian friend’s Connecticut garden. It looked like a stalk of celery and had a licorice flavor, but a mild one — not the strong, cloying taste of licorice candy, or the potent thrust of liqueurs such as ouzo, Pernod and anisette.
Some years later I ate a fennel salad in an Italian restaurant in New Haven that was milder still — almost as subtle as the licorice hint you get in chervil or tarragon. This fennel had been sliced thin, doused with good olive oil, paired with oranges and topped with curls of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I was hooked.
This was Florence fennel, or bulb fennel, a type that looks like a celery plant that has stepped in front of one of those funhouse mirrors that widen your girth.
Fennel is a very beautiful vegetable. The flattened base, when mature, can be wide as your hand, the stalks wrapped in an overlapping pattern. A thin green stem projects from each, topped with ferny foliage a bit like dill’s but firmer and greener, perfect for garnishing a plate.
Fennel’s use extends through much of the world, but to me it always evokes the Mediterranean countries. In the south of France it is as customary as saffron in bouillabaisse and other fish soups. In fact, to many minds fennel is always associated with seafood.
English fishmongers traditionally offered the tasty fronds with fish to use in an accompanying sauce. It‘s great for stuffing a fish or as a bed on which to roast one whole. There is indeed something very pleasant about the way fennel balances a fish’s flavor, especially the stronger, oilier fish like salmon and mackerel. It even makes them more digestible.
I often cook the bulbs just by themselves, brushed with oil and braised, grilled or roasted until they caramelize. They’re a wonderful accompaniment to a meat, poultry or fish dish. Raw, they can be used any way you would use onion or celery —raising a tuna or lobster salad well above deli counter status.
When Thomas Appleton recommended it to Jefferson, it was as a dessert.
Though fennel is now familiar in restaurants, and even produce markets, it is just starting to appear in home gardens. You do not have to go to Florence or Marseille in order to learn to grow it, fun as this might be. Many seed catalogs now carry it, sometimes under its Italian name, finoccchio, which rhymes with the famous long-nosed puppet.
The non-bulbing fennel, often sold as herb fennel, is also useful and beautiful. There is even a purplish leaved type called bronze fennel that makes a pretty foil for roses and other flowers. Herb fennel is allowed to bloom. It makes the same yellow umbels you find on parsley and dill, attracting beneficial insects like lacewings and syrphid flies in heroic numbers.
Bulb fennel tends to bolt in hot weather, so it is grown as a spring or fall crop. For a spring crop you’d need a long-day variety, with some tolerance of summer days. But in the shortening days of late July and August, any variety will do. Orazio has done well for us in Maine.
If you start fennel indoors, sow it in containers or soil blocks. (Because of its taproot it can only be pricked out of a seed tray when very tiny.) For a fall crop, I’d sow it directly in a fine textured seedbed outdoors, as thinly as possible, keeping the bed moistened. Soil should be well-drained and not too acidic. Thin the seedlings to several inches apart, then to about 8 inches, eating the thinnings.
Even if the bulbs never become supersized before hard frost, you’ll be guaranteed a crop of the baby fennel so prized by chefs for its tenderness and elegance. If you’re going for big bulbs, feed them every month or so with manure tea or a fish/seaweed fertilizer to help fatten them up. Harvest them before they turn woody.
To grow fennel flowers or seeds, both of which are dried as a seasoning in Italy, plant the herb type. For those who use fennel medicinally, much of the potency lies in the seeds, although the whole plant exerts a benign effect on its particular realm — the intestinal tract.
Fennel is said to prevent flatulence, aid digestion, relieve cramping and bloating, calm the stomach, sweeten the breath and take just enough of an edge off the appetite to keep you from reaching for a brownie.
Sounds like the perfect dessert.