These are wild fennel flowers. They are even sweeter and more fragrant than the fronds, but their pollen flies everywhere, so if you’re thinking of picking some for their prettiness alone you might want to be aware of ‘pollen dandruff’. We picked off the little flower heads and munched away in the car. It was amazing how sweet they were.
Traditionally, the flowers are immersed in white wine vinegar, which is then used to enhance the flavour of capers. I didn’t think capers needed enhancing, but apparently they do. I did in fact thread a flower head through the neck of a bottle of fairly standard white wine vinegar. Apart from the excitement of doing this successfully which made me think of ships in bottles, the vinegar was gorgeous: thinly acid but full of glorious sweet fennel, and as the days passed it took on a deeper, throatier quality. I wanted to pass this on, because it really makes a difference to a salad dressing if you use it.
This recipe is from Catalonia where they call it Crema Cremada, which means ‘burnt cream’. Everywhere else, it is called Crema Catalana, which tells you everything you need to know about the Catalan personality. It is a simple custard infused with lemon zest and, in this version, fennel. If you don’t have access to wild fennel, use fennel seeds – all the recipes I have read do. Not everyone will like this custard, because it has such a polarizing taste. Normally I wouldn’t suggest a recipe that has this effect, because I think food should be democratic and unstuffy. But here I think that you should carry on regardless. Because it really is quite special, and once tried it is difficult not to fall in love.
I tried to describe the unique flavour of wild fennel in my post on the fronds. The most dominant element is licorice, and the flowers bring this to the fore. But while the commercial seeds have something of the night about them (the Michael Howard of the seed world) with a tarry, smoky, malt-like quality, the flowers (and the wild seeds too) are fresh, sweet almost to the point of sharpness and totally alive in the mouth. They taste wild, in fact. I think that is why milk is such a good vehicle here. Creaminess brings out the softness and sweetness and chilling dulls any lingering edge. You can go one step further and make ice cream, which is also lovely.
In a month or so, the mellow yellow starbursts at the top of the fennel plant will be full of the seeds, housed in pods, to be taken home, dried and stripped. I suppose, given that I live in a city and that many of us now do, it is an experience in wonder to be reconnected to old practices and traditions like this. I am aware, though, that this recipe comes perilously close to what my old acting teacher used to call the ‘crumbling pigs’ arseholes’ school of cooking, by which she meant a certain kind of fey, precious approach to food, using inaccessible or pretentious ingredients. I was thinking of calling this post Crumbling Pigs’ Arseholes in her honour, but thought better of it.
Adapted from Patience Gray, Honey From A Weed
If you really hate the idea of fennel, infuse the milk with a cinnamon stick instead – this is also traditional.
1 litre of whole, full cream milk
2 tbs cornflour
1 lemon, the peel cut into 1 or 2 long strips
4 egg yolks
4 tbs sugar
1 tbs crushed fennel seeds, 5g fennel flowers or 1/2 tsp of fennel pollen
In a cup dissolve the cornflour in 4 tbs of cold milk (the cornflour will prevent the eggs from curdling). Heat the rest of the milk in a large pan with the lemon peel and the fennel until it just begins to boil. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for at least 30 minutes. In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a thick, pale cream. Then beat in the cornflour mixture. Gently reheat the milk and beat in a ladleful. Now slowly strain the rest of the infused milk into the egg/cornflour mixture. Pour this back into the pan and heat slowly, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon until the custard thickens to coat the back of it. Let it cool, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. Then pour into 6 clay ramekins or one large clay pot and chill for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. I served mine with some candied kumquats, a nice combination.
The Burnt Version
You sprinkle sugar over the chilled custard and heat it to a bubbling crisp. Traditionally, a salamander is used here – this is an iron disc that is heated until white-hot and then held over the sugar. The sugar caramelizes evenly without warming the custard. This is what I have always loved: the starkness of contrast in heat and cold. A grill/broiler will work too but you need to make sure the dishes you are using can withstand the heat, and there won’t be the same hot/cold differential. Or use a blowtorch.