FOOD WRITERS are an excitable bunch, always in search of a culinary revelation and an excessive number of adjectives to describe it. But few gastronomic discoveries prompt such effusive descriptions as a first taste of fennel pollen. “If angels sprinkled a spice from their wings, this would be it,” declared the writer Peggy Knickerbocker in Saveur magazine back in October of 2000. Lesser poets of the palate tend to settle simply for the word “magic.”
A little reassuring hyperbole might just be in order in this case. For many of the uninitiated, the first question is: Am I allergic to it? Meanwhile, fennel seed, pollen’s better-known cousin, has an army of haters who balk at its bold licorice punch, second only to cilantro as a maligned foodstuff.
Three Winning Ways to Cook with Fennel Pollen
- Perk up pork. A thick, juicy chop with a dusting of fennel pollen and sea salt is one of the best (and easiest) ways to showcase the spice’s subtle sweetness.
- Or pasta. Combine fennel pollen with orange zest, sea salt and mint to top linguini or goat-cheese ravioli.
- And don’t forget dessert. Sprinkle fennel pollen atop panna cotta or vanilla ice cream with fresh berries.
So let’s be clear. This food will not trigger sneezing or runny eyes. And fennel pollen has none of fennel seed’s jarring flavor. Its character is (magically enough) both more subtle and more intense than the more familiar spice, with the brisk freshness of fennel fronds and a lovely hum of sweetness.
Fennel pollen comes, as you would expect, from fennel flowers, which are collected just as they start to bloom. They are then dried—and left undisturbed throughout the process so that no essential oils are lost—and sifted to remove unwanted debris.
A top-quality fennel pollen will be fragrant and golden-green in color, said Rolando Beramendi of Manicaretti Italian Food Importers. He began bringing fennel pollen over from Italy in his suitcase for chefs and sausage makers in the U.S. more than 20 years ago. Today, he imports as much as his small producer, Antica Drogheria Francioni in eastern Tuscany, can produce.
If there’s any trick to getting the most out of fennel pollen, it’s simply to let it shine. Don’t ask it to compete with bold flavors like chili flakes or even black pepper (use white instead). In Italy, pork is this ingredient’s classic partner, but Mr. Beramendi also loves to sprinkle it over fresh anchovies or swordfish garnished with parsley. A small pinch also gives neutral-tasting blank canvases like poached eggs, goat cheese or roasted potatoes a subtle spark.
Where to buy: You won’t likely find fennel pollen at the supermarket, but it’s widely available online. We like Antica Drogheria Francioni, which is hand-harvested in Tuscany in high summer. ($15 for 1.5-ounce jar at Market Hall Foods) Status-seekers can try a jar from the Voyager Collection, a collaboration with renowned chef Eric Ripert, from New York spice house La Boite. ($30 for a 1-ounce jar).