No it is not wild fennel, it just looks like it.
I found this bunch of fennel at one of my favourite stalls in the Queen Victoria market this week. Apart from many other vegetables, I always buy my cime di rape, radicchio, chicory, kale, broadbeans, coloured cauli, violet eggplants – name any of the out of the norm vegetables and this is where I go: to Gus and Carmel’s. I even bought some milkweed this morning. This is where I also buy my vlita – another weed.
At the end of the fennel season (and it is well and truly this in Victoria, Australia) the fennel plant (called Florentine fennel) produces some flat bulbs, which never mature.
My friend Libby who grows fennel in her wonderful garden in the Adelaide Hills first alerted me to these flat bulbs last year – at the time we thought that this would be very suitable to use with pasta con le sarde which includes wild fennel as one of the ingredients. After speaking to her I saw some bunches of these small flat bulbs for sale at the Queen Victoria Melbourne Market. And here they were again for sale today. I spoke to the vendor (Gus) who said that rather than wasting them he thought that he could try to sell bunches of them. This fennel may become very marketable – good on you Gus.
Gus is Calabrese. He knows that I like to use this type of fennel for my Sicilian pasta con le sarde, but he told me how he uses the fennel to make a pasta sauce and he uses anchovies.
He slices the whole plant finely (the green fronds and non-developed bulbs) and cooks it all in some boiling water with a little salt. Then he drains it well.
Anchovies are the secret ingredient.
In a large frypan dissolve a few chopped anchovies in some hot extra virgin olive oil (the anchovies are crushed using a wooden or metal spoon until they melt in the oil).
Add the garlic (chilli is optional). Add the cooked fennel and toss it in extra virgin olive oil and flavours. This is your pasta sauce.
Sicilians would select bucatini. Calabresi would like to be Sicilians so they would as well.
Present the pasta dressed with the fennel, topped with toasted breadcrumbs (the alternative to grated cheese not only in Sicily, but obviously also in Calabria).
For bread crubs: use 1-3 day old white bread (crusty bread, sourdough or pasta dura).
Remove crust, break into pieces, place into a food processor and make into coarse crumbs. They can be crumbled with fingertips or grated. The term for breadcrumbs, in Italian is pane grattugiato/ grattato – it means grated bread.
Heat about ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and add 1 cup of coarse breadcrumbs (see above). Stir continuously on low temperature until an even, golden brown.
Obviously if you do not have access to someone who has fennel growing in their garden, or to wild fennel, or to Gus and Carmel’s stall you may need to use bulb fennel with as much green frond as you can get. Nearly as good, but not quite!!
I also bought this garlic at the same time- not bad.