Wild fennel time

All around the Italian countryside, March is the perfect month to go foraging wild fennel. Wild fennel grows spontaneously, entangled by the roadside, in unfarmed abandoned fields, basically everywhere, provided that the weather is mild.

In this time of the year, wild fennel, particularly fresh and tender, is at its best: in Sicily, for  instance, farmers collect it when the feast of San Giuseppe is celebrated and stock it for the upcoming months.

The most exquisite part of wild fennel is the white bulb, with its green heart, right at the core of  the plant: it is similar to the white bulb of the domestic Florence fennel, but it differs in flavour,  which is deeper, stronger and sweeter, with a hint of anise.
The green leaves of wild fennel are also edible, as opposed to the ones of domestic fennels: the hairy tops of wild fennels can in fact be trimmed and cooked just like their bulb: they taste the same, but have a different texture.

Wild fennel grows effortlessly in the Mediterranean area, but can be easily bred anywhere, even in a small pot in a urban rooftop garden: it needs very little watering and will survive virtually any  weather: a small plant - bought during the winter - will go a long way, providing the loving gardener with fresh, scented leaves, enough for a season or two, ready to be used in the kitchen.

Once collected, wild fennel - thoroughly washed and cut - can be used fresh or blanched and frozen.

We live in a world that moves much too fast, where we try to cram as much into every minute of the day as possible, in which it's difficult to find time cook one's own veggies, let alone forage them;  however, food that we whip up ourselves, with ingredients that we have contributed to grow, have a very special taste: lights, colours, noises and scents are all in there, concentrated in that dish of sautÈed pasta, red like tomatoes, green like wild herbs, that calls us irresistibly towards the table.

Pasta with wild fennel

Time: 20 mins
Servings: 2

  • 1 pound wild fennel fronds, leaves and tender stems
  • 2 pounds spaghetti
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
  • 3 cups tomato sauce
  • Ω cup pine nuts
  • Ω cup dried currants
  • 1 tbsp sun dried tomato paste
  • Ω cup white wine
  • 2 cups unseasoned dried breadcrumbs
  • 1 pinch ground hot pepper
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • salt and pepper

First of all, we will make the sauce. Cook the wild fennel in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender, for 10 mins or so. Drain well in a colander and let cool, then chop and set aside.

Combine the olive oil, onion and garlic in a large saucepan and cook on medium-high heat until the onion is softened, for some 5 mins.
Add the tomato sauce, pine nuts, currants, and blanched wild fennel.

Stir the tomato paste into the wine until dissolved, then add to the sauce. Season with salt and pepper and let simmer for 10 mins.
In the meantime, make the breadcrumb topping: combine breadcrumbs and olive oil with sugar and hot pepper in a little skillet and cook, stirring constantly, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown, then set aside.

Cook the pasta al dente in a large pot of salted boiling water, then drain in a colander and stir into the sauce pan.

Transfer the pasta to a serving platter and garnish with the seasoned breadcrumbs.