This year I let all our fennel go to seed, never harvesting more than a few bulbs. I know, it looks bad for me. Still more evidence of my fundamental sloth and incompetence, some might say. Fortunately, it’s different this time, because this time I had a plan. And my plan was this: I was going to let them bolt. Yep. That’s it. I was going to let them bolt. You see, this year I wasn’t in it for the fennel bulbs. Instead, I wanted to harvest fennel pollen. Unfortunately, after harvesting the pollen, I’m not sure what to do with it. Of course we’re going to eat a bunch. And there is a good market for fennel pollen. It’s a big market and can be quite lucrative (the pollen brings $20-$40/oz). But despite harvesting the entire patch, I only have a few ounces, too much to eat but nowhere near enough to make it pay.
Probably because of the glaringly, half-baked nature of my fennel plan, our farm partner, Adam, was… I’ll say… skeptical. Every week he wanted to cut some plants for market. “People are begging for bulbs,” he’d plead. But like a desperate, degenerate junkie, I couldn’t deviate from the plan. I wouldn’t. I was on the verge of a huge pollen score. I couldn’t just quit.
Fortunately, I like fennel pollen a lot. In fact I love it. (I’ll go a bit father and admit that it’s a big part of why I farm.) It’s one of the great treasures of the culinary world. Fennel pollen is sweet, Annis-like and very complex. It’s a fantastic addition to any fish or white meat dish. It’s fantastic folded into a batch of fresh pasta or sprinkled over grilled veggies. The famous fennel pollen quote came from Peggy Knickerbocker of Saveur, “If angels sprinkled spice from their wings, this would be it,” she wrote.
In the garden a fennel plant goes through several stages before yielding pollen. It starts as a dense bulb topped with fawns. In the autumn, as the plant begins to bolt, the bulb diminishes and the plant grows rapidly, setting bunches of flower clusters. These yellow flowers contain the pollen. After a week or two, the flowers turn to seed and for a brief period the green seeds are topped with a residual bit of pollen. These pollen topped seeds are my absolute favorite way to eat the plant. It might be my favorite thing in the whole vegetable world. If you ever have the opportunity to pinch and eat some seeds at this stage don’t pass it up. The experience might change you.
There are two ways to harvest fennel pollen. To get it fresh, put the whole, yellow flower heads in a bag and shake them vigorously. Fresh is the way to go. It’s 100-times more potent and flavorful than dry pollen. However, if you must harvest it dry, the easiest way is to cut the heads, put them in a paper bag, hang them upside down and wait for a few days, tap the bag whenever you walk by. The dry pollen will fall (with a few seeds) and gather in the bag. If you go shopping for fennel pollen, know it’s the dry stuff they’re selling.
As for my couple-few ounces, I suspect I’ll greedily eat as much as I can. Aside from that I may make up a few 1/4 oz. satchels and offer them at farmers’ market for $10 or so. It’s a good price and I’d like to share the magic.