I first heard about this magic dust years ago. Mario Batali was talking about smuggling some of it back from Italy in his suitcase. If an ingredient is good enough to smuggle, it’s got to have something going for it. Besides that, I love fennel seeds. I’m into the whole plant but there is something intoxicating about roasted fennel seeds. Sweet nutty goodness. It’s amazing to me how its aniseed characteristics blend into a fresh baked goods smell. We have bundles of the stems lying around outside drying at the moment. When you wander out on to the deck in the hot part of the day the smell of drying fennel wafts over you and instantly improves your outlook on life.
Back to the pollen: Around the time I heard about the stuff I was staying at a friend’s family farm and discovered some flowering fennel when I was scouring their autumnal garden for dinner ingredients. I upended the flowers into a bag and shook the bejesus out of it, hoping to harvest the yellow stuff all over the flowers. I gathered a paltry amount; say enough to cover the head of a pin, which had a barely detectable aroma. I shrugged it off and started looking for it online. I found it was sold by a company in California. I lost interest after tallying up all the costs.
Then I read an article about harvesting it by Daniel Patterson, a San Francisco chef, in Lucky Peach magazine. I had just neglected the simple step of drying it! He suggested drying the flower heads upside down in a paper bag. This was Ok, but I get better results using a dehydrator. When the flower heads have become brittle, simply crumble the yellow pollen into a fine sieve set in a bowl. You’ll get a little stem material, but that’s tasty too.
If you’re wondering where to get some fennel flowers, just keep your eyes peeled. Fennel grows all over the place. It is a good idea to avoid fennel from the sides of railway tracks and roads but you will find it in many vacant lots and possibly in your own garden. It’s a very easy plant to grow and it’s generally self-propagating. Just leave a flower or two after you’ve harvested what you need and it’ll all grow back before you know it.
Sprinkle some of your ingeniously harvested fennel pollen on some just cooked fish with the plate right under your nose. You’ll get what it’s all about real quick.