Twenty years ago, fennel pollen was a secret to everyone except a few cognoscenti in rural Tuscany. Today, thanks to an eccentric Tuscan butcher, it’s the secret ingredient of famous chefs like Mario Batali and adventurous home cooks.
This story starts with Italy’s most famous butcher.
Dario Cecchini is an eighth-generation butcher in the tiny Tuscan town of Panzano. His shop is a mecca of meat: a gorgeous room with white tiled walls, marble counters, booming opera music, and beautiful, bountiful displays of meat topped off with fresh herb garnishes. Would-be butchers from around the world, including author Mark Buford, who wrote about his experience working for Dario in his book Heat, go to Panzano to learn from Dario directly. And culinary pilgrims make the trek to visit his shop and to taste hyper-local Tuscan foods. (By the way, if you’re in the neighborhood and looking to check out good meats, it’s also worth it to stop in at Antica Macelleria Falorni five miles north in Greve, another spot that uses plenty of fennel pollen.)
Dario sells plenty of beef, and pork, and salami, and sausage, and roasts. But if you ask, he’ll also sell you the herbs and spices he uses to season his meats: dried red peppers, piney rosemary, purple onions, aromatic garlic, and tantalizing, herbaceous fennel pollen. It’s not a hidden, top secret spice mix. It’s just what grows by the side of the road. If you drive through Tuscany in April, you’ll see enormous fields blanketed in yellow—thousands and thousands of tiny yellow fennel flowers laden with plenty of golden pollen. It’s so prevalent that it’s basically a weed. And that’s why the pollen such a secret: it’s so easy to overlook in the landscape that nobody sees it. Wild fennel grows all over Italy, and while people across the country eat the fronds and bulbs, nobody outside of Tuscany has ever even heard of using the pollen.
Thankfully, people like Dario haven’t overlooked it. He picks the wild fennel flowers before they go to seed. He dries the flowers, then rubs them to collect the pollen. He uses the pollen to flavor pork, poultry, fish, vegetables, just about everything.
Fennel pollen has captured the imaginations of food lovers from around the world.
Just ask Ji-Hye Kim, a Korean-born chef who spent a week working with Dario in his shop. She told me, “I didn’t cook with fennel pollen while I was there, but I was struck by how it’s just everywhere. I’d walk in the fields of Panzano in Chianti, and walk along the random olive trees planted on the side of the road, rosemary bushes, and fennel stems… They were all just there, a part of the landscape, kind of wild, no one harvesting them or even paying attention to them. Then you have some in a dish, maybe with some boar or fava beans, with a glass of chianti, you really get a sense of what the wine folks are talking about when they say ‘terroir.’ Fennel pollen can add that mysterious and sweet herbaceous flavor that transports you to the small town in Tuscany, just with a flick of your fingers.”
Or ask Zingerman’s founder Ari Weinzweig, who first experienced fennel pollen during a visit to Dario’s shop in 2000. He wrote, “With a certain swagger, Dario opened the jar and pushed it towards me to smell. I leaned over to do so, but the aroma hit me long before I even get close. The smell of wild fennel pollen is, quite seriously, something else. The perfume filled the room rather quickly. Truth be told, in 20 years of cooking and traveling, I’ve never before, nor since, smelled anything quite like it. Its aroma is sweet, pungent, smelling intensely of everything great about fennel and then some. I hadn’t even eaten it yet, but on aroma alone, the stuff is amazing.”
Food writer John Thorne wrote: “Wild fennel pollen takes [fennel’s] anise-drenched monotone and imbues it with a highly potent resiny complexity. While there truly is no easy comparison, my first sniff of wild fennel pollen did remind me of my first encounter with fresh basil, when before I had been familiar only with the one-dimensional flavor of the dried version. Then, as now, it was as if someone had flipped a switch and the black-and-white world was suddenly drenched in color.” He likes to use fennel pollen to season shrimp along with garlic and chile powder. Or he’ll add it to pasta with zucchini and sausage.
Fennel pollen is like culinary fairy dust—it makes food sparkle with flavor.
It tastes like fennel seed, but lighter, more ethereal. It’s the kind of secret ingredient that will make any dish a little brighter and more aromatic. Try sprinkling some on roasted cauliflower just after it comes out of the oven. Or mix it with a bit of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and use it as a spice rub on chicken or fish. The ultimate way to use it, though, has got to be on pork. In Tuscany they use fennel pollen, rosemary, and garlic to season unbelievably delicious pork roasts. You could do that, too. Or, better yet, you could rub some onto a fat pork chop and then toss it on the grill. The rich, sizzling pork with the floral, aromatic fennel pollen are an extraordinary combination.