In the few reliable English-language Sicilian cookbooks, wild fennel plays an outsized, borderline mythic role. It’s understandable why: it’s fleeting and found only in certain places. Among the diaspora it’s a big deal, because a) it has an absolutely unique flavor b) it’s tied to arguably the most iconic dish in the Sicilian canon (bucatini with sardines) and unarguably the one that expat Palermitans gush most readily about and c) gathering it is often a childhood memory, with or without loved ones passed on or at least left behind. So, while it is hardly a fundamental part of the Sicilian diet, wild fennel can get emotional.
Like so many things in the Sicilian language, fennel can have one of a variety names depending on the location and the age of the speaker; the incessant march of siculo’s Italianization is not making this any simpler. If you looked up “wild” and “fennel” in a Sicilian dictionary, they would translate directly as finocchiu sarbàggiu and this would be correct. However, most Palermitans I know refer to it in Italian and Sicilian as mountain fennel (finocchiu i muntagna) while in the eastern part of the island I’ve often heard it called finocchiu rizzu or frilly fennel. In Italian it’s called finocchietto or finocchiello (little fennel) or more specifically little wild fennel, finocchietto selvatico.
When we lived in Germany, we only saw wild fennel in restaurants in Sicily in the spring and early summer. By the time we were on our usual July beach vacation in the countryside, the fennel was either gone to seed, dead or already harvested. I did have the good fortune to go harvesting fennel once with a friend near Montelepre, where I learned to recognize it (easy) and judge the best parts to harvest (not as easy).
In California wild fennel grows in abundance and it really is one of the few really Sicilian things that tastes comparable grown outside of Sicily. The strong sun and limited rain here mimic the tough conditions in the Sicilian hillsides that produce a large and strong-flavored plant.
The flavor is reminiscent of cultivated fennel, certainly, but by comparison, it tastes much more strongly of dill. There are other funky notes in its smell and taste but if you were going to try a wild fennel recipe without the original article, the substitute should be dill; big, gnarly adult dill.
If you live in a place where wild fennel grows, you’ve probably seen it by the side of the road, if not hiking or infuriating you in your backyard (it’s impossible to kill). Pro Tip: do not gather the fennel directly by the side of the road because the taste and smell of car exhaust will overwhelm anything good about the plant.
A short walk, though, into any sunny area that gets a small amount of winter rain will typically yield results. Harvesting the plant when it’s smaller will yield a more tender product and some people will only take the tenderest shoots or the tops of larger plants. I harvest the whole plant (though maybe not the largest ones) and separate out the woodier parts from the more tender. In any case, they all will get boiled to death. The woodier parts are fine to use, chopped more like an herb, in pirciatu chî saddi (the famous pasta with sardines) or maccaruni ca sasizza (pasta with sausage and onions), while the tenderest parts I save for a salad. The fritters below can be made with either – woodier parts you’ll want to chop more finely, resulting in a more homogenous but still delicious fritter.
Once you get your haul of fennel home, you’ll want to wash it in several changes of water. Fill a big basin with water, big enough that there is a little room in the bottom of the water for dirt and bugs to settle once you’ve put the fennel in. Drop in the fennel and carefully agitate it, swishing and turning it around kind of like a clothes washer. Leave it stand for 8-10 minutes (this is a great project for multitasking). Lift the fennel out gently, careful not to disturb anything lurking in the bottom of the basin.
Repeat this process as often as you need to feel confident. This is a wild product and you’ll be amazed at the number of stowaways you’ve brought home with you. You could wash wild fennel forever and not get every trace of foreign material out of it, but after four or five changes of water, and one solid one with no insects, I consider it good to go. (This water is great for watering plants, rinsing off garden tools or even your car that got all dusty while you were driving around looking for wild fennel.)
Now that your fennel is clean, bring a big pot of salted water to a boil. Drop the fennel in and cook it for 20-30 minutes, until the fennel is very tender and you can easily bite through it. Drain it well and leave to cool. This first blanching also mellows the taste a bit. NB: your house will smell like a medieval pharmacy for a day or two afterwards. Open all the windows you can (or do it outside if you have the means). Once the fennel is cool, it’s ready for the recipe below.
Traditionally these fritters would be made with durum wheat (semolina) flour and without beer, but the more modern recipe below is lighter and has a pleasantly malty taste from the beer without adding sugar. Consider this a base recipe for vegetable fritters of any type – grated zucchini, chopped zucchini flowers and corn kernels all make excellent fritters (yes corn grows in Sicily even if it’s typically considered animal feed).
Drinking: We had our sfingi as a snack or aperitivo ahead of dinner. A light, dry wine is in order here, if sparkling, so much the better. My dream wine (not available in the US sadly) would be Makisè sparkling grillo from Cantina Fina. Sicily in a glass; salt air balances jasmine and yellow fruits. It’s fresh, it’s engaging and it has a long finish for a wine of this style. Good Prosecco wouldn’t be bad if you can find some. I am loving Sorelle Bronca these days, well worth the extra few dollars over some of that garbage they sell. Unfortunately Prosecco has earned its image problem.
If you were eating these as a vegetarian main course I might opt for red – the latest vintage of Tamì Frappato (one of the grapes of the famous Cerasuolo di Vittoria) has matching dill notes and a light cedar nose that stand up to the intense fennel. A salty, crunchy Salina Rosso, like the one from Colosi (50% each nerello mascalese and capuccio) would also balance the fritters along with some lusty sides.
Do you live in a place where wild fennel grows? Any tips on where to look or tricks on harvesting? Please share!
Wild fennel fritters – Sfingi i finocchiu sarbàggiu
Yeast-raised fritters of wild fennel
- 500 g all-purpose flour or 0 flour 1lb 1oz
- 350 g water at room temperature, about 1.5 cups
- 1/4 tsp instant yeast AKA bread machine yeast AKA rapid-rise yeast a scant gram
- 100 mL light-tasting beer at room temperature, about a half cup
- 2 cups boiled, chopped wild fennel– see introductory note about a pound
- 10 g salt about a half tablespoon
- Peanut or other oil for frying
Make the dough
Mix the flour with some of the water in a mixer with the paddle attachment or in a bowl with a big spoon until the water is absorbed.
Stir in the yeast then add the remaining water a little at a time until completely absorbed. Mix in the beer until the dough/batter is homogeneous. It will be a thick batter or runny dough, depending on how you look at it.
Add the salt and mix for another 5-7 minutes or so until the gluten develops, and strands form when the beater is lifted. Add the fennel towards the end of the last mixing phase.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place for about 30 minutes or until the dough has risen noticeably. Transfer the bowl to the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.
Make the fritters
About 2-3 hours before you plan to fry the fritters, take the bowl out of the refrigerator and put it somewhere, if not warm, draft-free.
Heat at least 2 inches/5cm of oil in a sturdy pan, to about 325-350 degrees F (170-180C), or until a small drop of dough sizzles excitedly, but not violently, when you drop it in.
Using two spoons (one to dip in the batter and one to slide it off into the oil), drop teaspoonfuls of the dough into the hot oil, until you’ve got a not-too-crowded layer – they will expand as they cook.
Use a fork or slotted spoon to break apart fritters that stick together and turn them over once golden on the underside. Cook about 2-3 minutes per side until golden all over.
Use a slotted spoon or skimmer to transfer the fritters to a cooling rack set over a tray or a piece of tinfoil. Keep an eye on your oil temperature – you want your fritters to be golden, not brown, outside and fully cooked and fluffy inside. Repeat with the remaining dough until no more remains.
Serve the fritters immediately.
These fritters are great as a snack, antipasto or rustic secondo with a salad – maybe even a cooked dandelion salad you gathered while you were gathering fennel! Or, later in the season, a traditional tomato salad with red onion and capers.