Wild fennel liqueur or finucchiedda

Wild fennel is a lovely plant that I especially like. It is the flavor of the Mediterranean, especially of Italy, Sicily and Sardinia. Mixed with sage, rosemary, and garlic inside pork belly, it is exact taste of Tuscany; it defines the now well know salami, finocchiona; on fish, you’re transported to Sicily; in the presence of saffron, it will make you dream of Bouillabaisse.

Wild fennel, originally a European plant, has naturalized in northern California and can be found in almost any vacant lot, roadside area, regional park, or parking strip. It covers entire hillsides in Tilden Park. All you need to collect it is a pair of garden pruners. Urban foraging here. The wonderful part of this liqueur is you are given three flavors of fennel: the fronds, the seeds, and the flowers. Taste them separately to see what I mean.

Be sure to collect wild fennel from a clean area, well away from roads, freeways, train tracks, and other places with sooty air. It’s also a good idea to pick neighborhood branches not too close to the ground, as dogs like to pee on these plants in urban areas. But don’t worry about that too much, it washes off.

You’ll need to locate “pure” alcohol, or ethanol. Pure alcohol is the stock-in-trade of distillers and doctors, though it isn’t exactly legal for either of them to sell or even give it to you. “Pure” alcohol isn’t really pure in the strictest sense; it can reach a maximum of about 96% purity, or 186 proof under normal conditions. Since it is extremely volatile (it evaporates really quickly, which is why it feels cool on the skin, and is highly flammable -- no explanation needed), it retains a water fraction to stay stable. That’s the simple explanation. Easier to find and use is high proof grain alcohol, which is up to about 150 proof or 75% alcohol. You won’t get the same degree of extraction, or rather, solubility from lower alcohol spirits, but it still can produce a good if less intense liqueur.

Collect three or four fennel stalks with fronds, seeds, and flowers still on. Cut the stalks into 3 or 4 inch pieces. Rinse them in a few changes of cool water until it rinses clear. Drain well in a strainer and let drip at room temperature for a few minutes, until most of the water has fallen off. 

Place the fennel in a glass container you can cover and pour one liter of alcohol over it. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for 3 days, away from heat.

On the second day, make sugar syrup by bringing to the boil 1 liter of spring water (don’t use tap water, too many chemicals!). Stir in 665 grams of granulated sugar until it’s completely dissolved. Stir occasionally as it cools. Allow to cool overnight, but do not refrigerate.

On the third day, strain the alcohol through cheesecloth or a gold type coffee filter so there are no bits left in the liquid. Pour the syrup into the alcohol and stir gently. (You may want to add the syrup judiciously, to achieve the exact taste you prefer.) You now have wild fennel liqueur. You can bottle it however you like -- in empty wine bottles, in French jars, in Mason jars -- but don’t use a plastic container. Freeze it overnight before serving. Store the alcohol in the freezer for safekeeping. Serve it over ice, add a little water if you like.

Here’s a little story. While I was in London this past year, it was unusually warm and dry for most of the summer, and I’d kept my windows open from mid-May until end of August. In the last week of my stay it rained in the night. In the  morning I set off for work on foot, as usual. I exited my apartment block, turned right toward the canal, and was suddenly stopped by the heady scent of wild fennel. As I searched behind the manicured hedgerow of Tuscan Blue rosemary to find the source, I realized I hadn’t encountered that enchanting smell since the summer before, in Northern Caifornia. There, hidden well away stood a single, small fennel plant, bending downward under the weight of the water from the night before, its aroma filling the morning air. I had lived in that flat for nearly six months and never noticed the secretive little beauty. It gave a wonderful lift to what was otherwise a somber day.

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