Kitchen Garden Simon Courtauld
I have never grown finocchio – or Florence fennel – having been told some years ago by a horticultural friend that it is a vegetable of southern Europe and needs a Mediterranean climate to be produced successfully.
This is not entirely true: possibly because we have just enjoyed a particularly hot summer, I have been buying fennel grown in Kent, perfectly formed and with a firm, bulbous base.
The reason for associating fennel with the capital city of Tuscany, and for using the name finocchio also as a derogatory term for a gay man, is obscure. But the growing of fennel should not be left to the Italians. A free-draining soil (clay is not really suitable), sun and water are all important, and seeds should be sown directly into the ground between May and August.
Fennel has a tendency to bolt, which can best be avoided by a late sowing, thinning out the plants and very regular watering. Amigo and Cantino are two varieties said to be resistant to bolting. As the bulbs begin to swell, they should be earthed up to blanch them and protect them from early frosts.
I do grow Florence’s cousin, herb fennel, which has green or bronze foliage and, once planted, will grow prolifically and self-seed elsewhere in the garden. This summer, I have had several stems with small yellow flowers, growing to a height of 7ft in a bed of marjoram, and another rogue plant positioned itself attractively next to some red dahlias.
Having planted some herb fennel in a terracotta pot a couple of years ago, I now realise that I shall never be able to get the plants out of the pot unless – which is quite likely – the pot cracks under pressure from the fennel stems, which are firmly wedged in and have rooted through the base of the pot.
However, the stalks can be cut and stuffed into the cavity of a red mullet or sea bass, while the seeds are traditionally used in the making of gripe water, which we may remember giving to our infant children.