A rare and highly prized Calabrian spice
“‘The spice of angels’, it’s sometimes called,” says James of Spice Mountain, “and it’s beautiful.” As he pops the cork lid and pours musty yellow grains onto our outstretched hands, it’s not immediately obvious why this is one of Calabria’s most highly prized exports. A better whiff and a small sprinkling of it on the tongue, mind, and you begin to understand what the fuss is all about. “It’s intense—it’s got that aniseedy, liquorice flavour of fennel, but with a touch of honey,” says James. It’s aromatic, warm and slightly sweet—similar to fennel seed, if you were to compare it to anything, but much more complex.
It’s as rare and as revered as saffron, and it’s collected in much the same way. “The fennel pollen harvest is one of the most ancient traditions of Calabrian peasant culture,” James continues—and the way these tiny, delicate flowers are collected hasn’t changed in the long history of its usage. The flowers are picked by hand and laid out in the heat of the Calabrian sun to dry. Once ready, the pollen is gently coaxed away by working the flower between the fingers.
“Because of its luxury status, when you cook with it you’re going to use it as a main flavour,” says James. It’s pungent, so you’d not need much else anyway. “It’s not something you put with other spices, which is indicative of Italian cuisine: few ingredients, cooked simply. It’s high in umami, so when it hits your tastebuds the flavour is immediate.”
In Tuscany it’s often used as part of the traditional rub for porchetta—that deliciously salty, highly herbed and seasoned slab of fatty pork with crisp crackling. Elsewhere it’s typically found in fish dishes, or with chicken. Magali, the owner of Spice Mountain, suggests combining it with quality salt as a dry rub, or as a seasoning for grain-based dishes.
“For a real treat, try a little sprinkle on buttered crusty bread, or combine with orange zest, olive oil and mint to make a simple dressing for spaghetti,” reads the Spice Mountain website, a bible of cooking tips and information. It can be used in baking too; “a little on an orange cake will transform it”—like culinary fairy dust.