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Flavors of the World: Fennel of Italy

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Fresh fennel is available all year round, but it is a cold-weather crop and so it's at its best from autumn to spring.

Fresh fennel is available all year round, but it is a cold-weather crop and so it's at its best from autumn to spring.

A Taste of the Mediterranean

Like the fragrances of rosemary and garlic, the scent of fennel, with its hint of anise, is deeply evocative of the Mediterranean. From Sicily to Provence, from Catalonia to Santorini, wild fennel is a quintessential part of the landscape.

Fennel flower

Fennel flower

But fennel is particularly prevalent in Italy where wild plants thrive, thrusting their tall stalks, topped with graceful yellow flowers, toward the sun.

Wild fennel was tamed several millennia ago; it is said the Roman warriors included it in their diet to make them strong. In time the beautiful flower of fennel became symbolic of strength and honor.

Shakespeare Knew It

When Ophelia loses her mind in Act 4, Scene 5 of Hamlet, she begins to distribute flowers to those around her. Obviously, she knows the symbolic meaning of those flowers, but is there some thought as to whom each of these tokens is given?

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.

Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,

that's for thoughts. […]

There's fennel for you, and columbines.

There's rue for you; and here's some for me; we

may call it herb of grace o' Sundays. You must wear your

rue with a difference. There's a daisy. I would

give you some violets, but they withered all

when my father died.

The remembrance of rosemary; might that be for an invisible Hamlet, praying he has not forgotten her? Fennel symbolized strength and praiseworthiness. Who received that token? Is rue (regret) for Gertrude's hasty marriage to Claudius? Columbine symbolized folly, daisies symbolized innocence, and violets symbolized faithfulness and modesty. To whom were these given? (I wonder—if Ophelia is sane enough to match the right flower to the right character, how crazy is she?)

The Greeks thought fennel to be an appetite suppressant. In 13th-century England, it was used to help people endure religious days of fasting.

How Is It Used Today?

Fresh fennel is available all year round, but it is a cold-weather crop and so it's at its best from autumn to spring.

All parts of the plant are edible; the bulb and stalks can be eaten raw or cooked, and the foliage makes a lovely (and edible) garnish.

At the market or produce stand, look for crisp white bulbs free of blemish. The stalks should be firm and the fronds bright green.

Don’t purchase fennel if any yellow flowers are present—blossoms indicate that the vegetable is past maturity.

Growth Requirements

  • Type of Plant – Perennial
  • How to cultivate - Start from seed—does not transplant well
  • Where to plant - Not a candidate for container gardening—the bulb has a very deep root system
  • Days to germination - 7 to 14
  • Days to harvest - 80 to 90
  • Light requirements - Full sun
  • Water requirements - Regular watering
  • Soil - Loose and well-drained
  • USDA Hardiness – 3 - 10
  • Pests and Diseases - Susceptible to aphids and damping off

Linguine With Balsamic-Glazed Vegetables

When winter vegetables are roasted in the oven, their sugars caramelize and a whole new depth of flavor is created. Here fennel is thinly sliced and baked with squash, eggplant, onion, and garlic and then tossed with toothsome fresh pasta.


  • 4 small zucchini
  • 4 small Japanese eggplant
  • 3 small red bell peppers, seeded and diced
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed, and bulb cut into thin slices
  • 1 large red onion, peeled and cut into thin slices
  • 1 garlic bulb, peeled
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ cup Kalamata olives, pitted
  • 1 cup chopped fresh basil, loosely packed
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 pound linguine pasta
  • Grated Parmesan cheese for garnish


  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Slice zucchini and eggplant into 1/8-inch slices. Separate the garlic cloves and cut them in half lengthwise. Place all of the vegetables (zucchini through garlic) in a large bowl and toss with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Spread out evenly on two baking sheets and roast in preheated oven for 10 minutes. Stir and roast for an additional 10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil to cook the pasta. Salt the pasta water and cook the linguine according to package directions until al dente. Place the drained pasta in the large bowl in which the vegetables were tossed. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil.
  4. When the vegetables are finished, remove them from the oven and place them in the bowl with the pasta. Add the olives, basil, and balsamic vinegar. Toss to coat the pasta with the oil, balsamic, and basil and distribute the vegetables throughout.
  5. Serve with the grated Parmesan cheese.

Tomato, Shrimp, and Fennel Soup

In their book New England Soup Factory, Marjorie Druker and Clara Silverstein present 100 soups from their restaurant of the same name. The recipes are well arranged, easy enough for even novice cooks to follow, and beautifully photographed. If you enjoy homemade soups you must buy this book. And if you are interested in trying a fennel soup, you must try this entry from page 35 of Marjorie and Clara's book:

The Roasted Fennel

  • 3 bulbs fresh fennel, chopped and stems discarded
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

The Soup

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 large Spanish onion, diced
  • 2 ribs celery, diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 6 cups peeled whole tomatoes (canned or fresh)
  • 4 cups fish or chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 pound uncooked small shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 8 to 10 leaves fresh basil, torn
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. For the roasted fennel: Preheat the oven to 425°F. Place the fennel in a small roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the edges turn a light caramel color.
  2. For the soup: Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot over medium-high heat. Sauté the garlic, onions, celery, and carrots for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stock, and fennel seeds. Bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat. Puree the soup in the pot using a hand blender or working in batches with a regular blender until smooth. Return to the heat. Add the shrimp and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the roasted fennel, olive oil, vinegar, basil, salt, and pepper. Return to the stove and heat for an additional 2 minutes.

This recipe yields 12 servings.

Fresh, thinly sliced fennel has a crisp, sweet flavor that marries beautifully with the tang of blood oranges and the briny bite of Nicoise olives. If you cannot find blood oranges, navel oranges can be substituted.

Romaine, Fennel, and Blood Orange Salad


  • 1 head romaine lettuce
  • 1 medium-sized fennel bulb
  • 2 blood oranges
  • 1 cup Nicoise olives
  • Pinot Noir dressing (see text box below)


  1. Combine all of the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl and whisk together to blend. Season to taste and set aside.
  2. Separate the romaine leaves. Tear the larger ones and leave the smaller leaves intact. Wash and spin the lettuce and divide the leaves among 4 serving plates.
  3. Slice the fennel bulb into quarters. Remove the core from each quarter and then finely slice the fennel into slivers. Reserve the fronds for garnish.
  4. Prepare the orange slices by cutting both ends off of the fruit. Stand the orange cut side down and, using a sharp knife, remove the peel and pith by carefully slicing it away, moving from the top down. Slice the peeled orange into rounds.
  5. Scatter the prepared fennel, orange slices, and olives over the romaine leaves. Drizzle with the dressing. Garnish with reserved fennel fronds and cracked black pepper (optional).

Pinot Noir Dressing

  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup Pinot Noir
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper

Vitamins in Fennel

Amounts% DV

Vitamin A

117 IU


Vitamin C

10.4 milligrams



23.5 micrograms


© 2016 Linda Lum