In praise of finocchio

The surprise delight from our vegetable garden in the last few months has been the Florence fennel. I have never seen these bulbs for sale in the fruit and veg section of the supermarket in New Zealand. Indeed the first time we ate them was, appropriately enough, in Italy a couple of years ago though I think they are commonly available across the counter in other European countries too.

It took me a long time (decades, even) to convince Mark of the merits of fennel. Having had a rural Taranaki upbringing, he found the aniseed flavour and scent just reminded him of the roadside weeds and he was not that keen on aniseed. I weakened his resistance by the use of dill which Larousse tells me is also known as false anise or bastard fennel. I had thought it was a step up from fennel myself, but apparently not. Whatever, I had a nice but fiddly recipe which stuffed schnitzel with smidgeons of many vegetables and flavoured it with dill. Dill is still the favoured taste in North Africa and Scandinavia, but most of Europe uses fennel which is a native Mediterranean plant.

Fennel leaves or seeds are frequently used as flavouring, particularly for fish and it appears that you can use the common roadside weed for this purpose though the pots of living herbs you pay $3 for in the supermarket may look more appealing. There aren’t too many confusing forms of fennel really – common fennel (foeniculum vulgare) where you use the leaves and seeds, the bronze fennel which is sometimes used as an ornamental in the herbaceous border (named the same as the common stuff but with purpureum added) and which is equally edible and Florence fennel or finocchio (same name but with var. azoricum added). It is the Florence fennel that is worth searching out. It produces a fleshy, bulbous sort of swollen base to the stems which is the delicious bit. Technically it is a pseudo bulb (false bulb) but usually they are referred to as bulbs. We got our seeds from Kings Seeds or local garden centres can order them in for you.

Why are we so hooked on Florence fennel? It is a useful vegetable cooked or raw. It is different to other staple vegetables we use. And it is easy to grow. Eaten raw, it makes an excellent substitute for celery. Mark, who is the vegetable gardener here, has never had a lot of success with growing celery. It tends to get stringy, infested with slugs, dirty and does not yield much edible volume. Or it all matures at the same time and doesn’t hold. It requires constant spraying to keep leaf disease at bay. But Florence fennel is easy peasy, stays clean and doesn’t need spraying. It can be harvested as required over many months. It can be grated or finely sliced raw into salads where it gives a faint aniseed flavour and a good texture. It can be braised, added to soups or roasted. When cooked it loses almost all the aniseed taste and scent. It is not always easy to get too excited about vegetables so the discovery of a new option which is tasty, different and practical for the home gardener (but which the Europeans have known about for centuries) is worth some attention.

We have found next to no information on growing finocchio in New Zealand. Overseas books talk about planting one season and harvesting the next, although we have also found references to keeping the bed going as a perennial crop to be renewed every three years. So Mark has been floundering a little finding the best way to grow it. Kings Seeds advocate direct sowing the seed into the garden in early spring. As the plants grow, they form the bulbs and you can treat it as an annual and start harvesting around Christmas. Or, keep cutting the seed heads off over summer and restrict the number of shoots to each plant and you can harvest a succession of bulbs next autumn and winter. If anybody has more experience, Mark would love you to call him. By the way, finnochio leaves lack the pungency of ordinary fennel so if you are after it as a fresh herb too, you may need to grow both forms.

Just to confuse matters further, the so called fennel flower has nothing whatever to do with fennel itself. This is in fact nigella (presumably the well bred English chef was named after the pretty flower). Some readers may know it better as Love in the Mist, (botanically nigella damascens). I have it seeding down as a well behaved and very pretty annual in a cottage garden but I hadn’t realised what I was missing out on by not using the seeds scattered over bread and cakes. Nigella sativa is a different Mediterranean wildflower species from the same family which is not quite as ornamental though pretty enough in its way. It has a single flower. As it is also referred to in folklore and cooking parlance as Black Cumin, Roman Coriander or Nutmeg Flower and can be used in place of black peppercorns, it is clearly a near complete spice garden in one plant. Indeed, Mohammed is alleged to have said of nigella sativa, “In it is a cure for everything except death.” How can the versatility of fennel flower have escaped me up until this point?