Foraging for Wild Food: Fennel Fronds
I ran across a description of wild fennel in Pacific Feast several months ago and wondered what the heck they were. I had never heard of wild fennel, never seen it in a local field guide, and of course wondered what is fennel good for. However, I came across a tasty looking plant while walking my dog last week and wouldn’t you know it: wild fennel fronds!
Just like the book said, wild fennel is most easily identified in spring time by looking for the 4 to 5 foot high dead stalks from the previous years growth. The fronds have a carrot leaf look to them, but I would describe them as almost aquatic looking. Crushing the leaves and smelling them will give off a light black licorice (Anice) smell.
Poison water hemlock is the only poisonous look alike, but it’s leaves look exactly like carrot leaves. The stalk is easy to identify because it has purple spots/splotches and has absolutely no hair on the stalk. Also, if you break the stalk, it smells horrible. Definitely no scent reminiscent of black licorice. I know all this because I actually identified a stand of poison hemlock a few days later.
What are Fennel Fronds?Wild fennel is considered to originate from the Mediteranian like it’s domesticated cousin. However, unlike domestic fennel, wild fennel does not form a bulb. Both plants are part of the carrot family. It’s considered a tenacious invasive species and can be found growing close to the coast; up and down the Pacific Northwest. If you walk along any beach, you’ll most likely come across it.
The entire plant is edible, but the fennel fronds provide the bulk of the food. They are crunchy like celery, but have a light Anise flavor to them. Many people are turned off by the black licorice flavor of Anise, including myself. However, wild fennel frond are not overpowering like other Anise-tasting plants. In fact, I think the crunchy stalks taste more like celery mixed with mint. Very refreshing.Wild fennel fronds have traditionally been used to impart flavor to food by cooking on top of them. If you happen to run across them on a camping trip, it’s recommended to lay several cut stalks over a bed of coals and then to roast whatever meat you want over the top. This should work equally well in a barbecue.
What is Wild Fennel Pollen?
Another primary use of the wild fennel is for the pollen. Wild fennel pollen can be easily collected and added directly to food as a spice. It’s also easy to store for future use. Langdon Cook has an article about his experiences using wild fennel pollen on some pork chops, for instance. The pollen is easily collected by dipping the head into a container and shaking vigorously. Be careful not to break the head off! That way you can come back later to collect the wild fennel seeds.
Wild Fennel Seeds
Like the pollen, wild fennel seeds are one of the most potent parts of the plant. When diced, they impart a strong Anise flavor that many find overpowering. A little goes a long way, so also like the pollen, be sure to use it sparingly. I personally don’t have any experience collecting the pollen or the seeds… yet. However, I am looking forward to collecting some this summer now that I’ve identified a good stand of wild fennel near my house.
Drying Wild Fennel FrondsFrom what I read, the books and websites that talked about wild fennel seemed to indicate that it’s most widely used as a spice as opposed to a food directly. Like celery, I suspect that the stocks are tasty, but not necessarily nutritious. I don’t particularly like Anise flavor, but the minty, fresh flavor of the stalks did appeal to me. I realized that it would be really good to put some chopped stalks into soup or sprinkle on top of a meat dish. Also, like celery, they should dry well and be easy to reconstitute into food dishes.
After sheering off the fronds, I slit the stalks lengthwise and cut them into two inch long pieces. I then brought a pot of water up to a rapid boil and blanched them for about 5 minutes. Blanching before drying is recommend for storing celary, according to Preserving Summers Bounty. I dialed my food dehydrator to 95C and let them dry over night.One thing I wasn’t expecting was for the stalks to shrink so much. I’d say they lost about 75% of their volume. That’s actually a good thing, since it means the resulting ‘spice’ is easy to pack. Loading these dehydrated stalks into my food saver vacuum pack bags, I sealed them and put them away for later use. Next time I make some home made clam chowder, I’ll throw a handful of these stalks into the mix and see how they taste! I also think the light, minty flavor will compliment a fish fillet really well, so I’m going to plan on cooking with these too.