The clue here is the name. Wild. Unbiddable and unmovable. One of countless umbelliferous plants, this family (Ferrula) has barnstormed a place into human civilisation as one of our keystone herbs. If you think of any writer trying to capture their version of a mediterranean idyll, fennel looms large – pungent, aniseed, flowers that crawl with drugged and clumsy pin-head beetles. My favourite is Giant Fennel, whose hollow stalks become the homes for colonies of gargantuan petrol blue bumble bees all over Sicily, from the abandoned terraces of Alicudi to the 2,000 year old ruins of Agrigento. There, you see, I’m off on my personal Mediterranean idyll, and its fennel.
But, it is not exclusively a plant of the south, here too it will grow freely, uninvited and tall. Acid green or lustrous bronze, the two forms both carry the same pungency, and promiscuity when it comes to populating your patch with their offspring. Sadly it does not come with giant bees, but it still carries that unique flavour and smell; full of volatiles waiting to impart something of themselves into your food. Without the sun, that Sicilian sun, those volatiles will be weaker, less concentrated, something you will need to consider when deciding your quantities. And after the exuberant spring fronds, come the flowers and their seeds – medicinal, digestive, essential.
The fennel of spring comes as an eruption of froth, powered by a delving tap root that is heading to the antipodes. An established clump of fennel becomes a stubborn and resolute thing, a problem if it’s a weed, a heaven sent blessing when it’s a herb. And that tap root, prone to snapping and source of all life, causes all sorts of problems when the plant pops up in the wrong place and needs to be moved. A relocated fennel plant is seldom a happy thing. They have a strong sense of place, and their place is where they germinated, and no where else. Rehomed it will sulk and wither, the promised lacy abundance turning yellow and wilting. Given time, there may be a recovery, a return to vigour, but this is never certain, no matter how green your fingers.
As soon as spring has sprung, the tight froth of new growth will erupt skywards, that deep deep tap root powering stalks, fronds and yellow insect magnet flowers up to six feet in the air. Once it gets there, much of the greenery (or bronzery) will start to die back. All energy is diverted to height and flowers. So the window for cooking with fennel leaves is over by July.
There is one recipe, involving pasta, fennel and sardines, that for me more than any other, encapsulates Sicilian food. It’s ingredients are mostly ordinary, foraged, last hour of the market, store cupboard stuff. And then the smallest of extravagances are added. The flavours are sublime. Oily fish shot through with aniseed, sweet raisins, crunchy nuts, heady saffron and starchy pasta. This is cheap decadence that I could eat every day. The bucatini makes for a strange first encounter, it’s a hollow, tubular spaghetti – fatter and tricky to eat. It’s like a secret test to set true Italians apart from us lesser mortals, their deftness in stark contrast to our air-sucking futility. But the hollowness allows it to absorb more of the flavours and juices of your Sarde, so it’s worth the extra effort and humiliation.
Pasta con le Sarde (for four)
Sardines (fresh, 2-3 per person or 2 tins, in oil)
Wild Fennel, (a big fist full of a fronds)
25g Pine nuts (toasted)
25g Raisins (soaked in warm water)
25g Chopped almond flakes
75ml Olive oil
If your using fresh sardines, then clean them – heads off, guts out, fins clipped, back bone out. If you’re using tinned, the messy work has been done for you
Boil your pasta water, heavily salted and then use it cook the chopped fennel fronds (having removed the toughest, stringiest centre parts) for no more than ten minutes. Remove and keep your fronds, but keep the fennel scented water boiling and add the pasta, cooking for 6-7 minutes (check the packet).
If using fresh sardines, then keep half of the fillets whole, and chop the rest. Fry the whole ones in abundant oil, browning them on both sides, and when cooked, take them out of the oil and keep them with your fennel fronds. (you can skip this bit if you are using tinned fish, as they will never have the same crowd pleasing looks).
Now fry your chopped onion with the garlic. Add the anchovies and saffron (steeped in a little warm water), then added the chopped sardines, stir through the raisins, nuts and half of the fennel.
Whilst everything is heating through, test your pasta. Once it’s ready, drain, and then layer pasta, remaining fennel and the fish sauce, garnishing with the whole sardines you kept aside. Finally shake over a generous amount of breadcrumbs and flash everything in an oven on its top heat for five minutes.