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Fennel pollen is, in its most elemental sense, the pollen collected from flowers on the fennel plant. It is prized as an herb and is commonly used in Italian cooking. The fennel plant is native to central Italy’s Tuscany region. It also grows wild throughout much of California and the United States’ west coast. The pollen is popular in a great many dishes, and just a pinch can liven up the flavor of anything from soups to roasted meats.
Pollen is an integral part of most plants’ reproductive processes. It is formed in the plant’s stamen as a powdery, chalky substance. On a biological level, the powder protects the plant’s male gamete. The plant is considered “pollinated” — that is, ready for reproduction — when those gametes make their way to the plant’s female receptors, known as pistils. This can happen with the help of bees, birds, and even the wind.
Most pollen does not taste like much; fennel pollen is a notable exception. The fennel plant itself is prized for the licorice flavor of its leaves and seeds. That flavor carries over to its pollen with a buttery, sweet richness.
Fennel pollen is frequently sold as a spice in specialty culinary shops all over the world. It is most prolific in Italian cuisine, however. Italian cooks have long been using fennel pollen in pastas, pestos, and as a seasoning to white meat dishes such as rabbit and poultry. Fennel pollen pastries are also common throughout the Mediterranean.
As spices go, fennel pollen is one of the most expensive. Most recipes need only a pinch or two of the powder in order to add the desired flavor, but that pinch can dramatically increase the overall cost of the dish. Cooks who do not want to spring for fennel pollen can substitute with ground fennel seed, which has a similar, though less rich, taste. Planting fennel bulbs and self-harvesting the spice is also an option, albeit a time-consuming one.
One of the reasons that fennel pollen carries the price tag it does is because of how difficult it is to harvest. The plant’s flowers are quite small, and each yields only the tiniest bit of pollen. Hundreds of flowers must be harvested to fill even a small spice jar. Most of the time, this must be done by hand, taking care to shake the pollen loose from each flower bud individually. The finished product must also be sorted and sanitized to remove insects and other debris.