I read recently that in the 60’s and 70’s Melbourne Italians were often seen wandering the suburban railways picking bunches of wild fennel flowers amongst the sleepers. During one of my first visits to Capodimonte on the shores of Lake Bolsena I remember seeing pensioners diligently scattering the yellow flowers on trays and sheets laid out in the sun. Weathered faces would nod happily and tell me they would be stored for use on the grilled local lake fish, or to flavor their patate al forno during the winter. Right about when the wild fennel flowers the new season’s potatoes are not long out and I’ve been sprinkling last year’s batch of finocchiella flowers over simply boiled and just superb local potatoes, the province of Viterbo and particularly the basin around Bolsena also being well known for the quality of their potatoes.
It all comes back to central Italy’s volcanic past, Lake Bolsena being formed in the basin of what was not just one but several ancient volcanoes. And everything around these parts, from the Tuscia Maremma that stretches from southern Tuscany down past Viterbo and across to Orvieto sort of follows those eons old blasts of molten earth. The light tufo stone onto which Pitigliano, Sorano, Civita di Bagnoregio and all the rest are built is volcanic, as is the fertile land around the lake which yields those creamy yellow potatoes, the same of course for the terroir of the local grape varieties.
Last year I picked the flowers off the long wild stalks in the garden at Lubriano and from over the fence where the garden gives way to the cliff below. They need to be laid out in the good hot dry place to dry before pulling the flowers off their stems, letting them dry again before storing them in an airtight jar. Seeds differ from the open flowers and have a stronger aniseedy taste, and they taste just like a lolly if you eat them straight from the plant. Once dried the flowers are best on grilled or roasted fish, particularly trout like varieties, as well as potatoes and pork.
Coming back to the wine, I have attended a couple of the summer wine degustations in Lubriano over recent weeks. I tend to take shelter amongst the senior citizens and use my decent Italian to cover my mediocre wine knowledge, knuckling down to letting the inspiring group of winemakers and local wine raconteurs guide us through varieties such as grechetto. Grechetto, a grape of Greek origin is one of the principal varieties in the famous Orvieto bianco and used exclusively in the dry blast of profumi minerali in Tenuta Pazzaglia’s 109 (named after the DNA strain of the original greek imports) and Sergio Mottura’s Poggio della Costa. Wines that drink oh so well marry beautifully with grilled meats and especially porchetta, served perhaps with a potato and wild fennel salad.