A bulbous hand with green fingers is how I think of Florence fennel. Every now and then, my friend Carla Tomasi brings me some she has dug up that morning from her garden just outside Rome: perfectly white bulbs with uncut fingers up to half a metre long, and surrounded by enough feathery fronds to make a Vegas headdress. Back at the market, fennel fingers are pretty much always trimmed down to human size. At the supermarket, they are trimmed even harder – and the fronds, too – which is a shame, because they are like a herb accessory for a vegetable hand.
Florence (or bulb) fennel was developed by Renaissance gardeners in the 17th century; a domesticated cultivar of wild fennel that has been known to grow vigorously over the Mediterranean Basin, India and Pakistan for more than 2,000 years. While Florence fennel is a vegetable, its wild relative is a robust, perennial herb with hollow stalks, feathery yellow flowers and even more feathery leaves. It was in hollow stalks of wild fennel that Prometheus is said to have hidden the fire he stole from the gods, and by giving it to the human race, he raised them from their state of brutish ignorance.
While both bitter and sweet wild fennel are herbs, they also produce seeds and have small, swollen roots, making them three times as valuable: a herb, a spice and a vegetable. It’s also a medicine: the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder lists 22 remedies that include fennel, while in the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, used for the treatment of poisoning and infection – fennel is crushed to dust alongside mugwort, cockspur grass, cress, plantain, mayweed, nettle, cress and thyme, also old soap and apple juice. In the middle ages, villainous Venetian wine hawkers apparently handed out bits of fennel to customers, along with nuts, knowing it improved the taste of bad wine, while doctors recommended it as a way to get rid of bloating and incessant farting, helping digestion and sweetening bad breath.
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My Sicilian mother-in-law still thinks of fennel as a breath sweetener and palate-cleanser. In season, it is always on her table, either cut into wedges and served in icy water, or as part of an orange and fennel salad. It’s the sweetness of Florence fennel that balances its subtle but unmistakably anise flavour, which is further helped by citrus, as the Arabs and Sicilians know well. Sicilians also know that fennel bulbs have a sex: the elongated ones being female, the rounder ones male – and sweeter, apparently. However, if you don’t like anise, no wisdom about sex or sweet orange is going to convince you otherwise. That said, dislike of fennel can come from the fact you have met rather too many tough and stringy ones. When choosing, look for roundness and freshness – green fronds, even just a few of them, are a good clue to this. Also how tight the overlapping layers are at the base of the fingers.
Always trim fennel rigorously, chopping off the fingers, base and pulling away the thicker layers (which can be used for stock); a shock because the bulb reduces to nearly half the size. I like the Roman way of serving raw fennel dipped in olive oil and salt at the start of a meal, or the Piedmontese one of using its canoe-shaped curves to scoop from a warm bath of anchovy, garlic and butter.
Then there is cooked fennel, where crisp is transformed to tender and velvety (my partner would say slimy, but he says the same about carrots), and the aniseed calms right down. I am a cooked fennel lover: braised with butter or tomato sauce and olives; baked with fish; as fritters with mayonnaise; also fennel parmigiana and gratin.
If you wish, you can do an Alex Jackson-style gratin variation and press some strips of radicchio, fennel fronds and sliced garlic into the cracks, then pour over 100ml thick cream – it has won over many fennel-hating hearts.
Prep 20 min
Cook 1 hr
5 large bulbs fennel
Juice of half a lemon
A head radicchio, cut into strips (optional)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced (optional)
100ml thick cream (optional)
100g parmesan, grated
Trim the fennel bulbs carefully, cutting the fingers off away from the base (making sure they stay intact) and pulling away the thicker outer layers: set the fronds aside.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add salt, lemon juice and boil the bulbs whole for seven to 10 minutes, depending on their size. By the end of cooking, the outsides should be almost tender and the hearts a bit firm. Drain.
Cut the fennel bulbs into quarters and arrange in a single layer in a well buttered ovenproof dish.
If you like, press the radicchio and garlic into the cracks, then pour over the cream. Finish by sprinkling the top with parmesan, then dot with more butter and bake at 200C (180C fan)/gas 4 for 25 minutes, until the cheese is a golden lattice and the are edges bubbling madly.