The best thing about winter for me is fennel. I await the arrival of those glistening white bulbs with anticipation, not just because of their flavour, but also because of the memories they induce. Some of my most special meals have included fennel. In Abruzzo, fennel takes pride of place as the contorno of choice during the winter months. In my father's village, fennel is harvested in the morning, sliced into think chunks, seasoned with salt, drizzled with homemade olive oil and wine vinegar and served with lunch and dinner. Every day...until the season produces the next staple. I recall my aunt digging a fresh, crisp, pearl bulb of fennel from the snow with her bare hands. Its aniseed background was so delicate, so sweet and so aromatic.
In Sicily I devoured fennel salad nearly every day. There it was shaved thinly, sprinkled with dried oregano and dried chilli, served with golden segments of southern oranges, a few slivers of red onion and dressed liberally with olive oil. It was so refreshing and a wonderful expression of Sicilian flavours.
Lately though, I have been tinkering with baked fennel. Whilst not one of my favourite ways to prepare fennel, it is certainly special on a winter's evening. Last weekend I was walking along the river that passes though my town. I was admiring all the fresh growth and came across something we don't normally see mingled in with gum trees - wild fennel! I picked a handful of fronds to use for that evening's meal. I quartered several fennel bulbs and lay them on a roasting dish. I seasoned the fennel with salt, pepper, dried chilli flakes and the wild fennel herb. I sprinkled the dish with a small handful of parmigiano mixed with fresh breadcrumbs then drizzled the lot liberally with peppery olive oil. A nice glass of wine later - hey presto! Bubbling baked fennel - the perfect complement for grilled pork.
Put a bit of winter joy onto your plate...fennel certainly is fantastic!