Although I don't have any hard evidence to prove it, the longstanding local passion for fennel seems to have become more pronounced lately, a phenomenon that one Seattle restaurateur thinks might have something to do with the current popularity of charcuterie.
Unlike dairy farmers and grape growers, fennel producers don't have a fancy trade association that conducts consumer studies, so I have no idea what percentage of Americans say they can't live without fennel. But if researchers polled my review visit companions, I'd wager the number would be in the ballpark of 90 percent. In the last few months, I've had multiple dining partners insist we order every dish featuring fennel (and in Seattle, there are many), loudly proclaiming their devotion to the plant.
"People love that they can eat a fresh, raw vegetable," says Homegrown's co-founder Ben Friedman. "Fennel is such a Washington thing."
Homegrown's top-selling salad features roasted beets, shaved fennel and lavender vinaigrette. The restaurant this spring also sold a leek and fennel grilled cheese sandwich that Friedman described as "a great seller." Since chefs tend to be infatuated with fennel's flavor, which is usually likened to licorice or anise, they're forced to find uses for every part of the sometimes expensive plant, Friedman says.
"It's like a vegetable with a lot of waste, so restaurants find it challenging to use," he says. "We've put fronds into aioli and we've marinated it in grapefruit juice. It's definitely being widely used in ways it wasn't before."
Friedman theorizes the increased demand for fennel might be stoked by the fennel pollen added to housemade salamis. Fennel pollen isn't cheap - Friedman calls it "the saffron of the Northwest" - but the yellowish dust is an excellent counterfoil for pork, and it's hip (The Huffington Post earlier this year ran a story headlined "Fennel Pollen: Be a Step Ahead of the Foodies.") Friedman suspects the fennel pollen now on chacuterie plates could be acclimating taste buds to fennel's distinctive flavors.
Kristin Thompson of Vashon Island's Sea Breeze Farm, which sells its charcuterie at farmers markets and La Boucherie, doesn't dispute the premise. But she wonders whether many agnostic eaters were left to become fennel believers.
"Maybe fennel is being more widely used and therefore more widely accepted, but I didn't ever sense there was an earlier fennel rejection to overcome," she says.
As Friedman says, "most cooks I know use a lot of it."