Certain vegetables—fennel, for one—are unaccountably absent from most Canadian kitchens. Ask a German about Fenchel, or an Italian about finocchio, and they will tell you how mild and sweet it is, how crisp and refreshing eaten raw, how delicious braised or in a stew, how its anise flavour is distinct but not overpowering. Ask someone over here about fennel, and they may look puzzled: “Not sure I’ve ever tasted it.” Or they may think you mean the herb fennel, source of licorice-flavoured seeds sometimes used in cakes and confections or brewed as a digestive tea. But there is a big difference between that wispy dill-like herb and the bulbous vegetable often called Florence fennel.
In its upper leafy parts, Florence fennel resembles dill, while the plant grows something like celery—which is not surprising since fennel is a close cousin of both in the broader Apiaceae family, a group that includes parsley, caraway, cumin, lovage, carrots, eryngium and a host of wild things from Queen Anne’s lace to poison hemlock. But while celery grows tall and vertical, the best part of a fennel plant is the plump, rounded, pale green base, composed of tightly packed, overlapping leaf stalks. Like celery, the outer two or three “scales” of a fennel bulb can be fibrous and tough, but peel them back to reveal a tender pale heart and you’ve got one of the best bites fresh from the garden.
The list of fennel cultivars is short—and sweet! In some seed catalogues, Florence fennel is found with the herbs, in others with the vegetables. Foeniculum vulgare ‘Zefa Fino’ is “an improved strain” said to be resistant to bolting even when spring sown. ‘Orion’ (the one we grow in Canada) is a hybrid fennel forming softball-sized white bulbs of excellent quality.