Fennel is found in the wild all over California, and much to my amazement, many people consider it a weed… an aromatic, anise-flavored weed.
I grew a small patch of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) in my garden this past spring, but my neighbor across the street has fennel growing en masse on his property. Every summer, as the flowers start blooming in abundance (and releasing the seeds that make it such a notorious weed), I watch him cut down stands of tall, leggy stalks, sending the sweet scent of fennel through the air and into our yard. The plants come back anew in winter, and by summer, we have flowers again.
Fennel originated on the shores of the Mediterranean, making the California coast an ideal environment for this perennial plant to thrive. It’s become naturalized along our seashores and riverbanks, growing year round in our dry, mild climate. And while fennel is classified as an invasive in this part of the world, it’s actually an important food source for our pollinators, which are highly attracted to its umbels (umbrella-shaped flowers).
We usually treat fennel as a spice (for its dried seeds), an herb (for its fragrant leaves), or a vegetable (for its tender bulb), and most of its uses revolve around cultivated varieties like Florence fennel and bronze fennel. Wild fennel doesn’t grow a bulb at its base (at least, not one that we’d enjoy eating), but it does offer its own bounty: fresh, warm, golden pollen.
Fennel pollen is a coveted and expensive spice much like saffron is, and in California, it grows with wild abandon. It’s cherished not because of how hard it is to gather, but for how little pollen you retrieve from a single flower head. A large bloom may only yield an eighth of a teaspoon at most, so collecting enough for your kitchen requires lots of flower heads and lots of patience. This is why wild fennel is such a source of joy for foragers in the summer; you can gather as many flowers as you need to fill a small spice tin.
Fennel pollen shares the same sweet-scented notes as fennel fronds, but its flavor is more nuanced, more dynamic. Every pinch of fresh fennel pollen hints of licorice, lemon, and marshmallows. You’ll find these intriguing notes in dried pollen as well, but the flavors (while still wonderful) are somewhat subdued.
Dried pollen is the easiest to collect, as all you need are a few bundles of fennel flower heads. Place them upside down in a paper bag, tie the end, and allow them to dry. Give a shake and the pollen will fall to the bottom of the bag.
Fresh pollen is what I prefer and though it takes a little more time and effort, it’s worth trying at least once. (And as a reminder, steer clear of roadside fennel that may have been exposed to things you don’t really want in your food.) Gather as many flowers as you can and shake each one onto a sheet of parchment. The pollen will drop from the flowers, and you may get a few of the flower buds as well. (Some people will take the extra step of separating the pollen from the buds, but I don’t bother — I find them equally delicious.)
You can also rub two flower heads together gently to encourage more pollen to fall. Its brilliant golden color speaks purely of summer sunshine to me. After all, that’s when it thrives.
I stash the pollen in a small jar and try to use it while it’s fresh. If your kitchen stays very warm in the summer (as mine does), it’s best to keep fresh pollen refrigerated if you don’t cook with it right away.
Unlike dried pollen, which is crusty and hard, fresh pollen is delicate and soft. It can go wherever fennel or anise may go to accent a dish: on fish or shellfish, pork or chicken, barbecued ribs or sweet sausage. You can use it as a dry rub for a steak (a little goes a long way) or a garnish for soups of all kinds, especially savory and creamy ones of tomato, potato, or leek. It’s perfect on bouillabaisse and cioppino. Sprinkle it on ratatouille and roasted vegetables, or even roasted ratatouille. Try a generous pinch on rustic home fries with parsley or delicate pastas with mint.
Fennel pollen also plays nice with sweets: dust a batch of buttery cookies with it, or add it to muffins and tea cakes. Start with less than you think you need, as it’s quite a potent spice.
In your foraging, you may also come across flower heads that have started to set seed. Rather than waiting for the seeds to dry out, gather them while they’re still green to use as an herb in your cooking. Green fennel seeds taste like juicy anise candy. I like them stirred into homemade tomato sauce while it’s simmering on the stove. A spoonful of green fennel seeds also makes a pretty garnish for a shaved fennel salad. Try it and see how you like it compared to dried fennel seed!