A couple of days ago I went for a walk in Lake Hollywood, my usual amble in the morning. It is a flat, paved trail that loops round the lake – not actually a lake at all but a reservoir surrounded by a forbidding high wire fence – and was prepared to be unamazed by it. There have been a few interesting sightings in the past (Mila and Ashton swanning past, Valene from Knots Landing ‘jogging,’ an eagle having a bath), but I was not in the mood. I wanted to walk until my legs ached, with my head down.
There was no sun to speak of, but a heavy haze, and the occasional patch of vague brightness trying to push through. Two ducks sat in the muck, pecking at some iridescent greenery. After a while, one stopped pecking and just stood there. Come on, you’ve had your fun, it seemed to say. So I moved on. I sat on a grassy bank to rest my legs for a bit and watched a family of coyotes tumble down the side of the hill, stopping to bite each other’s ears and roll around. They appeared one at a time, looked up and down the trail, and loped across to a hole in the fence, slipping through to the other side where the water was.
Up ahead there was a hole for me too, an unusual clearing where normally there is a closed gate. I walked through and up the hill and was surrounded by an oasis of wild flowers, bees, butterflies and wild fennel. I sat down on a stone mound.
Wild fennel is difficult to photograph. From afar it is just a sea of green feathers, a strange network of tentacles, a web. Up close it is too fine and long and wavy. You can never get it all in. So in the end I rolled a few in my hand and took in the smell. I was expecting licorice, the tarry, sticky sweets from childhood, but not lemon, rubber, grass, aniseed, hay, manure, mint, cough mixture and ferns.
Even as I walked past, this strange concoction spilled out. Wild fennel is a herb (or edible weed depending on who you read), and grows abundantly around the Mediterranean, and in Mediterranean climates such as southern California. It is easily confused with fennel the bulb, which has the same curly fronds up top, but is used principally for the fresh, clean chunkiness of its base. The herb, all frilly leaf, is used a lot in southern Italian cooking, particularly Sicilian, where they like to stuff the finocchio selvatico in their sardines, and the seeds in their sausages.
It felt like a real find, this place. There was no one else around, and though I could hear the voices of walkers on the main path, I was hidden from view. It is an economical landscape, because it is so dry. Looking only for lushness, meadows, and nodding snowdrops – Englishness – it’s easy to miss everything else. This field was gold, the dull, dry gold of old grass. Everything was matted, tufted and coarse with occasional bolts of bright colour from thistles. I had to give up the decision to be unmoved. The sun finally came out and I went and sat on the bridge and watched the turtles sunbathing at the lake’s edge.
Fennel grows often in the most unprepossessing places: wastelands, car parks and even in the street. It propagates like mad, and is considered something of a pest here and a fire hazard. Don’t pick it where there is a good chance a dog (or person) has peed on it. The spring and early summer is when you get the fresh green shoots, the wavy fronds, that are used for stuffing into fish and strewing over fava beans and ricotta, risotto, and as a base for pesto.
The simplest treatment is to boil them until tender and serve with olive oil and lemon juice. The autumn is when you get the seeds. This is when the fronds die back and you get the dried, burnt-looking stalks. However mangled they look, the plants will be full of seed clusters. They look like little umbrellas (hence the name Umbelliferae, the family to which fennel belongs). You can pick off the ‘umbels’, separate the seeds from the pods and dry them. They last forever.
After eating fennel pretty exhaustively all week, this recipe makes the most sense to me, gustatorially (I’m not sure that’s a word). It’s a classic pairing of fava beans (broad beans in England) and ricotta with wild fennel fronds. Use the bushy stalks of bulb fennel in its place, or some mint, or whatever takes your fancy. You could use peas as well as, or instead of, fava beans.
Fava beans, ricotta and wild fennel
Adapted from Matthew Fort, Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons
1 small onion
1 bunch of wild fennel
4 big handfuls of fava beans
Salt and pepper
Ricotta or feta
When fava beans are older, husk them and pinch off their skins to reveal the bright green pods beneath – boiling them for 3 minutes will help shuck off their coats, if need be. Heat a glug of olive oil in a pan. Slice the onion finely and chop the fennel into small bits. Wilt them for a couple of minutes and then add the beans. Cook very gently for about 15 minutes. Add a little water if the beans are drying out before becoming tender. Serve with ricotta, or feta if you prefer a bit of salty sharpness. This is lovely served alongside some prosciutto crudo.