I live in an apartment in Melbourne and have a balcony where I can only grow herbs. Fortunately I am very close to the Queen Victoria Market – it is my stamping ground. I am able to buy bulb fennel and bunches of leafy fennel (fronds attached) at one of my favourite stalls: B Shed, Stall 61- 63) in the Queen Victoria Market.
The stall is owned by Gus and Carmel and they grow some of their produce. Gus is Calabrese. He knows that I cook Sicilian food and I like to use this type of fennel for my Sicilian Pasta con le sarde that includes wild fennel as one of the ingredients. It is frequently used in Sicilian food to add a particular aniseed taste to many dishes.
We are not able to buy bunches of wild fennel (finucchiu sarvaggiu in Sicilian) in Australia and not everybody can go out and forage for it – you will recognise the plants by the strong aniseed smell and taste, strong green colour and fine fern like fronds. I collect the soft, young shoots of this plant, recognised by their lighter colour. This fennel is unlike the Florentine fennel and has no bulb. Because of its strong smell and taste, animals and insects tend not to eat it, so it can be prolific. I always ensure that the plant looks healthy before I collect it, after all it is a weed and it could have been sprayed. If I were to grow wild fennel in my garden I would collect the seeds (yellow flower heads) which when dry develop into seeds and plant them.
But for those of you who cannot get wild fennel there is some salvation. At the end of the fennel season the fennel plant produces some flat bulbs, which never mature.
Gus has given me his recipe for one of his favourite pasta recipes. It is cooked with anchovies, fennel fronds and topped with fried breadcrumbs. He tells me it is Calabrese (from Calabria). I say that it is Sicilian and in fact in Sicilian it is called ‘Pasta cca muddica’.
But Gus forgets that he has already given me this recipe, he gives it to me every year when I buy the immature bunches of fennel from him.
For recipe see:Pasta con Finocchio
What I do not tell Gus is that in some parts of Sicily they add grated lemon peel and in the Aeolian islands they add capers and in Siracusa green olives. There are also versions where it is made without the fennel. Simple, but all good.