Have you ever noticed that California fruit trees seem to be among the most fertile in the country? Artificial insemination. That's the answer. Dust pollen on the trees, the bees do their thing, and crop sizes increase. Sugar Ranch in Visalia, CA owned by Rebb
Firman is one of a handful of agricultural producers of pollen, and he can become downright lyrical about a trade that traces back to his grandmother's inspired efforts. It is believed that she was the world's first collector of pollen to be sold to farmers for agricultural purposes. Undoubtedly, that doting visionary could not have foreseen the newest direction her business would take. Wild fennel pollen, collected by her grandson, has become the latest seasoning darling of chefs throughout the country.
It all started with an article by Peggy Knickerbocker in the San Francisco Chronicle. She discovered that Italian chefs were using fennel pollen as a seasoning in Italy. She brought some back for her friends and discovered that, like the Italians, her companions, too, enjoyed the fennel-like flavor it imparted to foods. Unlike the fennel seed, which many feel should be crushed to get the flavor required in blends and rubs, one can use fennel pollen right out of the package.
Firman, knowing a thing or two about the commercial potential for pollen, was not slow to recognize a budding new market and wasted no time in throwing his hat in the ring. He had all the equipment necessary to process pollen, and then there were those California hillsides rife with wild fennel. An enlightened vision he had, but then he acknowledged a problem. "I had always marketed to farmers," he said, "and I had no idea how to reach chefs who would have to work fennel pollen into their recipes." A few deftly constructed press releases, several phone calls to food distributors, and to a number chefs did the trick. Requests for his product began to land on his desk.
But be aware; the stuff is not cheap. In fact, you can put the cost of fennel pollen in the same exotic financial realm as saffron. Fennel pollen's intense flavor is also comparable to that of saffron; a little goes a long way. My package arrived double wrapped in a padded mailer, and still my day's mail had picked up a strong scent of fennel. In fact, the entire post office smelled to the point that one could envision swarms of pollen ecstatic bees arriving on the scene. *Update 11/1/2008 - Fennel Polleen now available for $8.95 per 1/2 oz. at our local Whole Foods
There is one caveat to using fennel pollen: allergies. Airborne, it has the impact that any pollen might have on one who is allergic. Once in the prepared food, however, where it becomes inert, it flavors like any other seasoning, and there are no ill-consequences. The warning is proffered primarily for chefs who may be exposed to it in large air-borne quantities.
Directly from the package, Rebb simply sprinkles it on his steamed broccoli or potatoes before serving. It adds flavor to a steamed mussel wine broth. Brad Stabinsky, chef for The Prudential Center For Learning and Innovation in Norwalk, CT uses it in his mix for a gravlax-style salmon. He also (as have I) has made a delightfully fennel flavored butter for vegetables. For more information, contact Rebb Firman at his website fennelpollen.com.