Fennel is a short-lived perennial indigenous to Europe and cultivated in India, China and Egypt. It is a greyish-green, hairless plant with vertically-grooved, branched stems which smell of aniseed when crushed. The three- to four dark green leaves have feathery lobes and the yellow flowers appear from July to September.
There are two sorts of fennel: one is classed as a herb, it shoots up to about five feet and produces the leaves and seeds that are often used in fish recipes. Its proper name is Foeniculum vulgare. The great culinary alternative known as Florence Fennel is Foeniculum dulce, which, if you get the growing conditions right, swells at the base to produce a vegetable with a strong aniseed flavour, wonderful braised in a gratin with tomato and cheese.
Because Florence fennel is sensitive to day length, the best time to sow is in mid June for an autumn crop. Early sowings (April-May) are more likely to bolt. The days are shorter then and there is more risk of a sudden chill.
If you sow in mid June, you should be able to harvest bulbs by mid October. Fennel can stand light frost, but will not survive outside through any but the mildest winter. The best soil is light, sandy and well drained, but the bulbs must never be allowed to dry out. Put them top of the list if water is short.
When eaten raw, the texture is crisp and the flavour is quite assertive and anisseedy. Cooked, it's softer and more mellow.
To cook, wash, then trim off the green tops (they can be used as a garnish). Slice off the shoots and root and peel off the tougher outer layer (if the bulb is particularly young and tender you can leave this layer on). To cook it whole, cut out the tough central core from the bottom, leaving a cone-shaped cavity, or slice if you prefer. Alternatively, chop into quarters and remove the core from each one (but not too much, or the quarters will fall apart).
Fennel is delicious roasted and ridiculously expensive at the supermarket, so consider trying to grow some this year, there is still plenty of time to plan and get ready.