Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a member of the parsley family and it has soft, almost dill-like needle leaves. It has been cultivated in Europe for over a thousand years for its seed (a popular flavoring for breads, sausages, etc.) and for its bulb, which is used as a vegetable. There are three kinds of fennel: bitter, sweet and florence, according to the Oxford Companion to Food. The latter is bred primarily for its bulb that is used raw in salads and cooked in various dishes. But the leaves can also be used to flavor dishes in the same way dill leaves are used. Fennel is believed to be native to Italy. It has a pleasant anise-like or sweet flavor that is distinctive and delicious. Texture is a bit like celery but softer when sliced very thinly. I personally like it very lightly dressed in salads.
Fennel was rarely available in Manila up until a year or two ago. The fennel that found its way to specialty food retailers were often imported from Australia or Europe. Their prices were astronomical. In the last couple of years, however, more and more farms or vegetable enthusiasts in Tagaytay have been raising it with increasing success. About two years ago I ate dinner at Antonio’s in Tagaytay and in his kitchen garden he had some fennel plants thriving. I noticed he also seemed to occasionally supply Santis Deli (Makati) with herbs and sometimes fennel. Other growers in Tagaytay also started to plant fennel and the other day at the market there was this mother load of fresh fennel bulbs at Joey’s in the Salcedo Market. I could not resist the bounty and promptly picked out a medium size bulb that weighed in at just over 500 grams. At P450 a kilo, the single bulb was P200 (with bargaining) or less than half the price of imported alternatives. I know, it’s still not cheap but that one bulb went into a salad that fed six… Fennel does not keep well so use it within a day of two of buying it. Hurrah for farmers that are expanding the variety of produce that is available to Manila residents!