When I first made this tea, I was still living in Washington, D.C., and for the second year in a row, the temperature had reached 90 degrees in May. The scrappy portable air conditioners in our little 1930s, very poorly insulated, rented bungalow couldn't keep up with the demand, and the temperature in the house stayed in the mid to high 80s until nearly October. A breeze could make the back patio comfortable in the evening, as long as you had a free hand to whack away the mosquitoes, but by 8 am the next morning, leaving the house felt like walking into a steam bath.
At the time, we had loads of beautiful fennel at the market, and I was trying to give those beautiful, spruce-colored fronds some purpose. I'd been candying the stems, using the stems and fronds to infuse a syrup (good with prosecco), adding the fronds to salsa verde and pesto. But using them to infuse iced tea was the keeper.
My mom didn't make much iced tea, but when we drove down from our house in Georgia to visit my grandparents at their farm in North Florida, tea was always one possible answer for "what are you having to drink with dinner?" My grandmother spared no sugar in that tea, and yet it never tasted too sweet to me.
Cut forward many years, and while I still have a taste for ultra-sweet tea, in things sugary I aim for moderation. Steeping fennel fronds in freshly brewed black tea creates an illusion of sweetness without quite so much added sugar, and the fragrant anise flavor harmonizes beautifully with the tea's woodsy character. As far as non-alcoholic thirst-quenchers go, it's enchanting.
That sweltering D.C. summer I made this tea as long as the fennel lasted, through early summer, then picked up again when it came back in the early fall. A peculiarity of the Pacific Northwest is that in the warmest, driest part of the year, when the air feels hot enough to keep a pitcher of tea on hand, fennel is still coming out of the ground and looking fine. In other parts of the country, where the fennel harvest reasonably retires for, at the least, July and August, finding the fronds for this tea may be a shoulder season excursion (or a supermarket one, although supermarket fennel tends to be lacking in the luxuriously long, fragrant fronds that give this tea its flavor).
An alternative, though I haven't tried it, might be to infuse a large batch of simple syrup with the fronds when you have them, using it to sweeten the tea in the heat of the season when the cooler-season crops have taken their seasonal bow.
Then again, a hot day is no prerequisite for making (or drinking) this tea. Just keep it chilled, hold the ice.
8 cups water
1/2 cup loose-leaf black tea (I use Reishi's Ceylon black tea)
2 fennel stems with ample fronds, cut into thirds
1/2 cup sugar
In a large pot, bring 8 cups water to a boil. Add tea, steep 4–5 minutes (or according to package instructions). Avoid oversteeping, which can create a not-so-refreshing bitterness. Drain the tea through a fine-mesh strainer into another large pot or bowl. Add fennel fronds and steep 20–30 minutes. Remove fronds, strain tea again through a fine-mesh strainer (into the original pot or a glass storage jar) and add sugar, stirring to dissolve thoroughly. Cool completely, then serve over ice. Tea will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.