Driving back home at the beginning of summer is refreshing. You can almost hear the grass growing, the hedgerows are exploding with white flowers and the fields shine with just the most pale tone of yellow, treasuring the rich green for some more days.
You can spot wild fennel from afar. It loves growing along white roads with poppies, mint and other wild herbs I am pretty sure would be good in salads or soups. There is this primordial satisfaction in foraging herbs for your meal. Even if you can now afford daily trips to the supermarkets and even expensive shopping at your local farmers’ market, nothing beats walking just outside your gate and picking up some fennel fronds for your next meal, trying not to be dragged away by your dog sniffing an exciting game trace.
Wild fennel is the rogue version of the cultivated variety, it has the same distinct anise aroma of the sweet crisp bulbs you can buy at the market.
In the Tuscan culinary tradition the feathery wild fennel fronds have a side role, even though fennel seeds are widely used in many typical recipes. The crumbly finocchiona, one of the most emblematic cured meat of Florence, takes its name from the prevailing spice, fennel seeds. You also find the seeds used to give a anise flavour to pork chops and stewed potatoes in tomato sauce. But fennel comes to a leading role with pork liver: the already dried stalks of fennel are used as skewers to pierce pork liver pieces wrapped in fat and seasoned lavishly with salt and fennel seeds. The anise aroma of fennel marries beautifully the rich and slightly sweet pork liver.
Grandma has been collecting dried fennel seeds for all her life, ignoring completely the lacy leaves which stand out as vain puffs along the roads and the hedgerows. Yet wild fennel has a long history in the Mediterranean area, it has been appreciated not only for its culinary uses but also for its properties and health benefits.
Wild fennel pollen is the most precious harvest, though. It takes time and patience to collect it as every fennel flower cluster, which looks like a gracious parasol, contains just a tiny amount of it. It is enormously expensive to buy, but here in Tuscany it is now used instead of fennel seeds in the best charcuterie products, as in the finocchiona that my friends at the Casamonti pork farm produce.
My dad tasted a few years ago some pici, thick and fat home made spaghetti, in Val d’Orcia which were flavoured with wild fennel fronds, and he’s been asking me a similar recipe since then. It was about time to cook him one of his best meals. Pici are usually served all’aglione, with a rich tomato sauce and an outrageous quantity of garlic, cacio e pepe, a creamy sauce made just with grated pecorino cheese, a ladleful of starchy cooking water and black pepper, and con le briciole, literally with breadcrumbs.
Those breadcrumbs quickly fried in good olive oil were about to become something new, fresh and seasonal, thanks to a bunch of fennel fronds.
Pici con le briciole e finocchietto – Pici with breadcrumbs and wild fennel
I learnt to make pici by the book from my friends at Agriturismo il Rigo.
For a better result use home made breadcrumbs. I collect all my stale bread and once in a while prepare a large batch of breadcrumbs. Making it at home allows you to choose the coarseness of your crumbs: use fine breadcrumbs for coating meat and fish and for dusting and coarse breacrumbs for stuffings and recipes like this.
A grating of lemon zest, an anchovy fillet melted in olive oil or a tablespoon of tiny capers are a great addition to this dish, and move it from Tuscany to the sunny Sicily.
- 250 g of water
- 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pinch of salt
- 500 g of stone-ground wheat flour
- Semolina flour and corn flour for dusting the pici
- 8 tablespoons of coarse breadcrumbs
- 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic
- Black pepper
- Wild fennel fronds
- 1 tablespoon of shaved almonds
- Aged Tuscan pecorino
Pour the water into a large bowl with the olive oil and salt. Add gradually the flour, stirring with a fork.
When the dough will be too hard to be mixed with a fork, move the dough onto a wooden board and knead by hand to incorporate all the flour. Knead the dough until smooth and white matt. You might need more flour if too sticky or more water if you are not able to collect all the flour. Let the dough rest on the wooden board covered by the bowl for about half an hour.
Roll out the dough on the board with a rolling pin to a thickness of about half a centimeter. Do not use flour, it won't stick. Brush with olive oil to prevent it from drying.
Cut the dough with a pizza wheel into strips not larger than a centimeter and get ready to make pici. Roll the pici as they were play doh worms. Children are great at it.
Keep beside you a bowl of semolina and corn flour and dip your picio in the bowl as you go, then wrap it around your hand and put it aside on a tray.
When all the pici are ready, prepare the breadcrumbs. Heat the olive oil in a pan with a clove of garlic, add the breadcrumbs and fry until golden. Add the roughly chopped wild fennel fronds, season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Cook the pici in salted boiling water for 5-6 minutes and serve tossed with breadcrumbs, shaved almonds and grated pecorino to taste.
Here you can find some interesting readings about wild fennel:
- How to forage for wild fennel seeds.
- Playing with fennel, where I found a surprisingly delicious recipe for pici.
- Wild fennel, with an interesting insight on fennel through the ages.