Fennel has two forms. The first is the familiar herb that resembles dill, but with finer, more feathery leaves. These may be bright green to deep bronze in colour. The second form is bulb fennel, also known as Florence fennel or finocchio. Bulb fennel shares all the scent and flavour with its herbal sibling, but forms a swollen leaf base (not a true bulb) at the base of its stem. This form is cultivated only, and is not found in nature. Though the swollen leaf base grows above ground, it is treated as a root vegetable by chefs. The bulb is crisp, and may be sliced and eaten raw, but it softens and becomes milder when it is cooked and imparts a wonderful flavour to stews. It can also be sautéed or grilled and served as a side vegetable.
A member of the family Apiaceae, fennel is closely related to dill, caraway, carrots, cilantro, celery, and parsley. All of these plants produce tall umbels of flowers, and many, like fennel, do so in their second year of growth. Fennel’s golden yellow flowers are followed by abundant seeds that are widely used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, but also in India, and as a component of the Chinese five-spice powder. The seeds, like the leaves and stalks, and even the pollen, have an anise-like flavour of mild licorice.
The Russian River Valley Winegrowers host an annual Crab & Fennel Fest near Russian River, California in March. Masses of fresh, local Dungeness crab, specialty fennel dishes, and local wine are offered “in a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere.” Sounds lovely!