Pollen Pleasure

Fennel reveals yet another edible aspect.

I adore fennel and have for years. I grind the seeds of wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) for olive oil-fennel bread and pastries. The fronds and tender shoots make an excellent pesto. I slice up the bulb of Florence fennel (the kind most often sold in America) for salads and saute it with fish. But until recently, I'd never tried fennel pollen—the yellowish dust that drifts off the blossoms of the plant; now I have, and I love it. If angels sprinkled a spice from their wings, this would be it.

I first encountered fennel pollen in the Tuscan village of Panzano-in-Chianti, where butcher Dario Cecchini harvests it from fennel growing wild in the region and uses it to flavor the pork and poultry that he sells. Its heady, honeylike, herbaceous aroma was so intoxicating that I bought several bags of the stuff. Back home in San Francisco, I sprinkled a pinch of it on fish before grilling. I scattered a bit over roasted vegetables, and then I tried it on a pork roast. The effect, in every case, was positively transformative.

When fall came, I replenished my pollen cache by harvesting my own—easy, since fennel grows all over California (Italian immigrants brought it here in the 1800s). I gathered blossoms, plunged them headfirst into paper bags, and hung them in my cellar for a few weeks, whacking the bags occasionally to release the pollen. Then I wrote a story about it for my local paper, and a miraculous thing happened. I got a call from a plant propagator in central California named Rebb Firman; he'd read my story and was interested in harvesting the pollen commercially. We talked, and I am happy to report that Firman's first batch, under the Sugar Ranch label, will be available late this summer. (Keep in mind that if you're pollen-sensitive, this heavenly stuff may trigger an allergic response.)