Deliciously aniseedy in flavour, with a clean, clear crunch, fennel is one of my very favourite vegetables. It grows wild in abundance throughout Italy, France and Spain. Cultivated – or "Florence" fennel – with its large celery-like stalks and spray of yellow flowers, is similar to the wild stuff, except that its base is swollen and forms a tight, compact, creamy-fleshed bulb. Fennel first appears in the spring, when the days start to warm up. I use it all the time, both cooked and raw. My personal preference is to eat it simply roasted with a little bit of dried chilli and olive oil. Its flavour mellows beautifully when cooked – wonderfully sweet with just a hint of aniseed left. Fennel pairs well with grilled fish as well as pork, and is also great par-boiled and tossed in pasta dishes, or just sliced and tossed through a salad of little radishes and peppery rocket.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627
Roast pork belly with roasted fennel
As a rich, sweet meat, pork has a natural affinity with the aniseed flavour of fennel, which cuts through it. We also often add some quickly blanched rainbow chard, dressed in olive oil. With about 50 minutes to go, start making the fennel (recipe below).
2kg/4lb pork belly, skin left on
50ml/2fl oz olive oil
1tbsp fennel seeds
4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 red onions, peeled and roughly chopped
3 fresh bay leaves
2 dried chillies
500ml/17fl oz white wine
Preheat the oven to 200C/400f/Gas6. Score the skin of the pork at regular intervals. Rub the olive oil into the flesh and season all over with sea salt and the fennel seeds. Place the pork, skin-side up, in a roasting tray and cook on the middle shelf for 45 minutes. The skin should start to colour and the crackling start to form. Remove from the oven and lift on to a platter while you scatter the vegetables, herbs and dried chilli into the roasting tray. Pour the wine on top of the vegetables then put the pork back on top, covering the dish tightly with foil. Lower the temperature to 160C/325F Gas3 and cook for two hours. By this time the pork will be meltingly tender, almost soft enough to eat with a spoon. Serve hot.
If you're not serving this with the pork, it's also a perfect marriage with any white fish, chicken, or – because it's at its best at room temperature – simply chopped and tossed in a salad with olives and tomatoes. And I'd be just as happy to eat it on its own.
4 fennel bulbs
1 dried red chilli, finely sliced
1/2tsp fennel seeds
The zest and juice of one unwaxed lemon
60ml/21/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Remove the tough outer layers of the fennel and cut into quarters lengthwise. Place the fennel in a bowl and crumble over the chilli, season with salt and pepper and toss through the fennel seeds. Squeeze over the lemon juice and zest and dress with the olive oil – toss well to combine. Place in a baking tray, cover with foil and place on the middle shelf of the oven; roast for 30 minutes then remove the foil and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes. Remove and serve.
Salad of rocket, cooked spinach and shaved fennel
I love this salad; it has all the things I find most delicious. Spinach well-dressed and served at room temperature is fantastic.
4 bunches of spinach
The zest and juice of one unwaxed lemon
80ml/3fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
100g/31/2oz grated Parmesan
Sea salt and black pepper
1 bulb of fennel
3 handfuls of rocket
Start by washing the spinach really well – it tends to hold a lot of dirt and so needs to be washed in several changes of water.
Place a large, heavy-based pan on top of the stove and add the spinach – don't bother to put in any water, as the water clinging to the leaves is enough to wilt and cook it. Once the spinach has just collapsed – two to three minutes – drain it in a colander and set aside to cool.
When it is cool enough to handle, squeeze out the excess water with your hands – important because the spinach will taste delicious only if properly seasoned and, for that, it must be dry. Place in a bowl and dress with the lemon zest, juice, olive oil, Parmesan, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Blend lightly and thoroughly with your fingertips.
Slice the outer layer from the fennel, then slice lengthwise as finely as possible. Now add the spinach and the rocket; taste and season with salt and pepper.
Serve at once: this salad should be eaten once dressed as it begins to taste tired quite quickly.
Sea bass with fennel purée
Fennel has a natural affinity with seafood – and this is a nice, gentle way of serving it – clean, light and just a little bit nutty. This purée is also lovely with roast chicken.
For the purée
3-4 fennel bulbs
40g/2oz unsalted butter
2tbsp mild-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
3tbsp crème fraîche
Sea salt and black pepper
Remove the tough outer skin of the fennel and roughly chop it. Now place it in a heavy-based pan and cover with cold water. Add a generous sprinkling of salt, place over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn down the heat slightly and simmer until very tender. Drain in a colander and place the fennel in a blender – add the butter, olive oil and crème fraîche and purée until smooth. Season with a good pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Return to the saucepan and reheat gently. Serve alongside the fish.
For the fish
Allow 180g/6oz sea bass per person
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
35ml /11/2fl oz olive oil
Season the sea bass well on both sides and brush with olive oil. Place under a hot grill and cook, skin-side up, for four to five minutes until the skin is slightly blistering and the flesh is cooked through. Serve straight away, alongside the fennel purée.
The Forager by Wendy Fogarty
Petersham's food sourcer reveals where to find everything fennel-related...
Seeds: The Real Seed Catalogue ( www.realseed.co.uk) sells "Colossal" fennel and "Mantovano" spring-sowable fennel.
Spice: La Fromagerie (www.lafromagerie. co.uk) sells the distinct, Monti Sibillini fennel pollen, while Steenbergs (www.steenbergs.co.uk) sells organic fennel seed from Turkey.
Fennel salami: Wild fennel Cinta Senese salami from the Salumeria Toscana is made using meat from the rare Cinta Senese wild pigs mixed with wild fennel seeds. Available from www.savoria.co.uk.
Fennel tea: Goodness Direct (www.goodnessdirect.co.uk) sells fennel tea from six specialists, from pure fennel tea to an anise-carraway-fennel blend.
Further reading: Parsleys, Fennels, and Queen Anne's Lace by Barbara Perry Lawton (£20, Timber Press) is a gardener's introduction to the cultivation and history of this distinctive plant family.