Flavors of the World: Fennel of Italy

Updated on January 3, 2020
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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.


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 | Source

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 of 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

How to Prepare Fennel


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 degrees F.
  2. Slice zucchini and eggplant into 1/8-inch slices. Separate the garlic cloves and cut 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 to 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 are 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 degrees 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 an additional 2 minutes.

Makes 12 servings.

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

Nutritional Value of Fennel

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1 cup raw
Calories 27
Calories from Fat0
% Daily Value *
Fat 0 g
Saturated fat 0 g
Unsaturated fat 0 g
Carbohydrates 6 g2%
Sugar 3 g
Fiber 3 g12%
Protein 1 g2%
Cholesterol 0 mg
Sodium 45 mg2%
* The Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so your values may change depending on your calorie needs. The values here may not be 100% accurate because the recipes have not been professionally evaluated nor have they been evaluated by the U.S. FDA.

Vitamins in Fennel

% DV
Vitamin A
117 IU
Vitamin C
10.4 mg
23.5 mcg

© 2016 Linda Lum


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    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Flourish - You are so right! When you make your salad dressing you know exactly what is in it--no preservatives, no unpronounceable ingredients. Thanks for stopping by.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      4 years ago from USA

      I am definitely intrigued by that dressing! Homemade dressings are better than any stre brand.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Rachel - I love fresh fennel, shaved thinly on the mandolin and drizzled with a bit of really good olive oil. Honestly I have not attempted to grow fennel--nothing that "tastes good" survives in our yard. What the deer leave behind the rabbits finish off. So I could not prove that fennel is a perennial, but that's what it said on the internet (and everything on the internet is true, right?)

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 

      4 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Hi Carb Diva, Fennel bulbs are very popular in my family. Being an Italian family, we use it often. Mostly we cut it up and eat it raw for vegetable dishes before dinners, but I have also used it in a stew in the slow cooker. It does change it's taste a little when you cook it. I love the reicpe of the salad with the blood oranges, I'm going to have to try that. Very good. Thanks for sharing this information. One thing I didn't know is that it is a perennial.

      Blessings to you.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Bravewarrior - I do hope one of my recipes will prod you to giving fennel a try. I don't think you will be disappointed. Thanks for stopping by.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      4 years ago from Central Florida

      Can you believe I've never had fennel? Not the bulb, anyway. I see this in so many recipes, especially on cooking shows featuring Italian cooks. Giada DeLaurentis uses it all the time. She says she grew up on it. One of these days I'll have to give it a try.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, thank you so much. I've not tried to grow fennel. I tend to assume that if I like it the deer will also, so what's the point? Please let me know if you or Bev give any of these recipes a try. Would love to kow your thoughts.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Linda, yours is the only food article I enjoy reading. This is so well done. Bravo my friend. A side note...fennel is very, very easy to grow in case anyone is wondering...even I can grow it. :)

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Jackie - Yes, the roasted veggies are just so wonderful. People who say that they hate vegetables have probably never had them prepared that way. My mom used to cook veggies until they had died six times over. (Although all we ever had was peas, carrots, and string beans. She hated corn because she was raised on a farm and considered it 'pig food'. We never knew what broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts were. And asparagus? No way.) Thanks for stopping by.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Eric - Guacamole? Wow, that's pretty strong language from you! I would think that in California fennel would be easy to find and relatively inexpensive (I hope). Here?...not so much. But it is certainly worth buying.

      I love the bright crisp flavor and the fronds (look like dill weed) have a citrus-like flavor. I do hope you will try one (or more) of the recipes. If you do, please let me know your reactions. I have not tried the soup recipe, but everything I have cooked thus far from the New England Soup Factory cookbook is AMAZINGLY good.

      Roasted vegetables are never a bad idea and hey, if you can toss in some pasta I'm in. (That's why I'm the Carb Diva, right?)

      Thank you so much for stopping by my friend. Take care and keep in touch.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      4 years ago from the beautiful south

      Looks like some great recipes to try. I love roasted veggies best too, it is sort of like the special flavor of grilled meat, just really fantastic. Love the blood orange salad photo!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Guacamole! This sounds great. I shall prepare. I always wondered what those little fennel's were good for and now I know. Thank you

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Thank you Chantelle - Roasting vegetables transforms them into something amazing. I hope you enjoy it. By the way, any type of pasta will do, but I prefer something substantial--this is not the place for angel hair pasta.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 

      4 years ago from Chicago

      Definitely giving the linguine a try. Shared.


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