Fennel pollen is appearing more and more on fancy restaurant menus and the recipes in the Guardian’s weekend food supplements seem to be incomplete without an artful scattering of its tiny yellow flowers. Fennel pollen is incredibly expensive and at £25 for half an ounce, it rivals saffron for cost.
However, I’m going to let you into a little secret; it is incredibly easy to grow. I laughed out loud at the description on an American website describing how this rare and precious substance was harvested by hand from wild, organic plants in California. The truth is that fennel grows so prolifically, it has naturalised itself all over the world and is an invasive species in North America, so you’re doing everyone a favour by eating it. I’ve picked it on mountainsides in its native Spain but also in car parks, harbours and road sides in the UK. There is even a row over a mile long alongside the M6 motorway as you approach the Spaghetti Junction on the southbound carriageway, although I wouldn’t recommend you tried foraging there.
As a lover of all things aniseed, I have several large clumps of fennel herb growing on my allotment. I grew my original plants from seeds bought from an Asian grocer, which cost less than £1 for four ounces. It seeds itself prolifically and I’ve passed on its progeny to several other allotment holders who have admired this tall, graceful plant. It’s a perennial, so once established will come up year after year.
I’ve been using fennel flowers and pollen for years and put about ten quid’s worth on my dinner last night. In fact all parts of the plant are edible. I use the feathery leaves in that appear in spring in more dishes that I care to list, the stalks as barbecue skewers and the seeds fresh or dried as a tea, with fish and in baking. It has many medicinal uses such as a diuretic and for upset stomachs and is the main ingredient in gripe water used to treat colic in babies. I haven’t tried growing Florence fennel, which is essentially the same plant but a variety that has a swollen bulb instead of a long stalk, but it’s on my list for my new allotment.