The Fennel Forager

January 15, 2012

Who is this guy?

What’s in his arms?

I screech to a halt.



Man with Fennel in Southeast Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

What’s in his arms is a bundle of dreams.

But I don’t care about that yet. I just want to know what he’s picked alongside the road because Sicilians are always picking stuff alongside the road, and dammit, I wanna know how to survive on wild edibles, too.

It’s fennel. I breathe in the sweet licorice-y scent.

“It grows wild year round in Sicily,” Alfio says. “I make pizza with fennel, and pasta con le sarde. Come on over sometime and I’ll make you pizza.”

Right there on the road, with my emergency lights flashing, Alfio (pet name for Alfredo, he says) recounts his life and his dreams. He’s an out-of-work chef. Italy’s economic crisis has hit Sicily hard. But Alfio hopes to open a macrobiotic restaurant, a fancy-pants one, with a Mediterranean twist and plenty of fennel.

Non vedo l’ora” I say, I do not see the hour (meaning: “I can’t wait”), and  climb back into the car with a sprig of fennel pressed against my nose.

Good luck, Alfio!


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25 comments to The Fennel Forager

  • Jann, I want to live in a world where I stumble upon men like Alfio! How beautiful your life must be and how intrepid of you to stop and interview these wonderful characters! An armful of dreams…bellisimo! Alfio seems like he has a warm and inviting disposition. I would visit his macrobiotic restaurant in a heartbeat as long as it smelled of fennel! Ah, I can smell it all the way from here! 🙂

    • Jann

      Bella, Alfio would be so pleased with your comment! Thank you. Glad the scent of fennel wafted up to you. xxxxxx

  • cemal karahan

    The fennel is called ‘ rezene ‘ in Turkish and it is also used for making tea used for the prevention of the wind in the stomach and the intestines. I hope that guy opens his restaurant and makes the ends meet, Jann…! Everybody in the world spends quite some money on food everyday..None seems to be eating at home these days, including dinners….!

  • CalCat52

    We used to go just outside Motta San Anastasia to get the wild fennel. It’s true – it grows everywhere – even in the rocky areas. I never even knew there was a fennel bulb before I went to Sicily. Now I look for it to put in everything. I slice the bulb very thin and saute it first – like an onion – before I put it on pizza. But I use the fresh fennel leaves w/out cooking them. I learned how to make frittata with the wild asparagus our neighbor would bring us. He was from the north of Italy and she was Sicilian. He said he missed the forests but if he went into the valley amongst the olive trees he could find asparagus and feel as if he was in the north again. We had fig trees down in the valley behind our apartment. We were taught to eat them “Greek style” w/honey and yogurt. And then there were the prickly pears on the way to Paterno. The pasticeria(sp?)in town (Motta) made a really tasty prickly pear granita. Have you ever been to the market in Paterno? There was a man there who brought fresh ricotta from Etna. Sometimes I dream about that ricotta……..seriously! ;P

    • Jann

      Callie–you’ve certainly captured the essence of Sicily in your comment! Thank you!!!! And made my mouth water. I’ve only ever driven through Paterno–never stopped. Do they have a good market?? We can get great fresh ricotta down in Southeast Sicily, but it’s cow’s milk ricotta–not from sheep like on Etna…

    • CalCat52

      Paterno’s market was always amazing very big and w/different distinct sections – meat, vegetables, prepared foods, clothes, etc. I could get replacement gaskets for my Bialetti stove-top espresso maker for 3 for $.49. Now it costs me at least $1 each! We went mainly because of the sheep’s milk ricotta. The man who sold it got to know me and would pull out my wedge and say, “I no sell it! I no sell it!!” because I cried one time when he sold out before I got there! I know it sounds silly, but once I had it no other ricotta could touch the taste. We looked in his truck one time and I saw that his baskets were actually the old style reed or wood – not sure what exactly they were, but they were not plastic. Unbelievable. There were warnings all the time from the American Embassy not to eat unpasteurized sheep milk products, but we never ever got sick. Please do take the time to stop in Paterno – and they have a lovely church (what city doesn’t???). Geez, it seems like there was something else special about Paterno – I will have to ask my daughter.

    • Jann

      Thanks, Callie–I will put Paterno on my list of must-do. I had to laugh at the Am Embassy warnings about ricotta. I worked “with” (not “for”) the Am Embassy in Rome several years ago and attended one of their “welcome to Italy” sessions and they told us that we needed to carry 5-pound walkie-talkies wherever we went because cell phones wouldn’t work in case of a terrorist attack. Slightly over-the-top, I’d say!

  • This is a wonderful post! I have a big lump in my throat..good luck Alfio.

  • Gian Banchero

    Though we here in central California have wild fennel fields found everywhere thirty years ago I brought back from Sicily wild seeds. The result? Much of my garden is now a finocchio forest, the seeds are used for liquors, sausages, fish, sauces along with various uses with the leaves. When I sit amongst the “forest” I’m again in Sicily.

    • CalCat52

      How lovely – forests of fennel.

    • Jann

      Gian–how fabulous!!! I have a great vision of you in your fennel forest in CA…. (Sausage with fennel is a specialty of Chiaramonte here in Southeast Sicily.)

    • Charlie

      Do you think the fennel seeds would grow down her in San Diego? I’ll send you a self addressed stamped envelope if you want to send me some seeds.

    • Jann

      Hmm, Charlie–I wonder if San Diego is too desert-y for wild fennel.

    • CalCat52

      I don’t think San Diego is too desert-y for fennel. Where we lived in Sicily it literally grew in rock outcrops and in sand! Now artichokes – that’s a great thing to grow in California, too…they are a wonderful crop in Sicily and oh, the different ways they cook them!!! I especially loved them halved and grilled with garlic and drizzled w/olive oil!

    • Jann

      Callie–I’m getting the distinct impression that you’re a gastronome of the highest order!

  • –Dear Jann,
    You capture the soul in your photographs
    You capture the essence of the human condition.
    –Alfio is beautiful.
    & I smell the fennel….I smell it all the way where I am.
    Love Love Love. Xxx
    PS. I’d love to see some photos of the beautiful Italian women…what do they wear when they shop? How do they fix their hair? Do they colour it?

    • Jann

      Aw, Kim, you’re so sweet. OK, beautiful Italian women. I will work on that–what I’d really love to do is to shoot photos the next time I go to my hairdresser, Nuccio. Do I dare? Then you’d see some adorable hair styles. Yes, of course Sicilian women color their hair!!! Lots of streaking, bleaching of their lovely dark locks…. 🙂

  • Sam

    The composition of that photo – with all the vanishing points converging on this guy’s face in the center – is perfetto!

  • Ah, sweet dreams are made of this!

  • Such beautiful fennel. Such a gorgeous face! Thanks, Jann for this post, food for the soul. We’ll have to try pizza with fennel, but no fennel grows by the roads in Chicago, especially these days, just old snow.

    Speaking of surviving, there’s an old story—I think from the 1890s—about a Sicilian mama too proud to accept food from from others (what others?—everyone was starving). When she didn’t have bread or fish or enough wild vegetables to put on the table, she’d close the door and fasten the shutters and make foodie noises, you know, setting the table, clanking the glasses, banging the pans. That way the neighbors would think they were eating.

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