Eynsham resident Graham Rice is not a chef. He does not own a restaurant or even rate himself as a dedicated foodie – yet he shops for fruits and vegetables with as much care as someone who considers fresh food to be of utmost importance.

Graham is an artist. When preparing for an Artweeks exhibition his food purchases were chosen for their aesthetic qualities. For some time now Graham has been through a phase of painting loose, swirling watercolours. But earlier this year he decided he wanted to get back to using oil paints and some of the more realistic techniques he worked on in the past.

He explained that there comes a moment when artists need to change their style and experiment.

“I was looking for a suitable exercise that would ease me back into attempting a modern take on the classic Dutch style. Something painted with some of the techniques of that era (underpainting, glazing and the like), but with a more modern graphic quality to the composition. But what should I paint?”

He finally visited the Burford Garden Centre to search for suitable props and a subject. They have an excellent grocery section which displays very good, fresh natural produce that is always so well presented Graham hoped it would inspire him, and it did.

“I accept that is an unusual way to go shopping for food, but I was looking for shapes and colour, rather than taste or smell, said Graham, who nearly picked out some soil-covered potatoes that had a beautiful honeyed colour. He was attracted by the contrast between the shine of their skin and the dirt that clung to them.

“Then I noticed the pitted-skinned oranges with dark leaves attached, and then a variety of red-skinned apples with interesting marked skins – but it was the fennel that finally attracted my attention. How could I ignore it?”

“The fennel had such an unusual, sculptural shape. I loved the way the rounded base of the bulb tapered into those thick stalks; then there’s that fine, wispy foliage contrasting perfectly against the solidity of the main body of the plant.”

Graham loved the way the ribbing on the bulb twisted around the form and then straightened as it ran up the stalk.

“All those elements made it a very interesting object, but the thing that really made me want to paint those fennel was the colour. Have you noticed how many colours there are within a fennel bulb?” he asked, pointing out that at first glance we may see it as a vegetable that is white at the base and green at the top.

‘Look more closely – there’s a wonderful translucent quality to the bulb, silvers and golds in the base that bleed brilliantly into yellows and greens as you move further up the plant. But that’s not all – look again and you will see greys and blues in the shadows of the flesh.”

While shopping at the Burford Garden Centre, Graham had been looking for a challenge, a fruit or vegetable that would excite him, inspire him to turn a vegetable that would excite art lovers as much as it enthused chefs and cooks.

He explained that it was not enough to find the subject for his painting, however. He had to find a backdrop too.

“After searching around I discovered some honey-coloured stone slabs that I could use to make a suitable shelf on which the fennel could be placed. The fennel was such a fresh, water-filled vegetable. I really liked the idea of hard stone acting as a contrast.”

It takes Graham more than 50 hours to paint a study such as this. Far too long for the fennel to stay in perfect condition. So as soon as he got it home, he began to make sketches then took lots of photographs from all angles before it lost its bloom.

“When the picture was done, I roasted some of the fennel in olive oil and a little lemon juice and cooked it alongside a chicken covered with butter and Provencal herbs, which I’d stuffed with one of the fennel bulbs.”

Graham says it was simply delicious. In fact, its flavour stayed with him as he added those final brush strokes to the painting He admits he had forgotten that the added bonus of painting vegetables and fruit is that he gets to eat them once the work is finished. He’d also forgotten how good fennel tastes, what a versatile vegetable it is, and just how it can transform a salad when sliced thinly and served with a vinaigrette sauce, which was how he prepared the remaining bulb.

Fennel is native to southern Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area where wild fennel grows in profusion.

Its popularity rose during the medieval period when wild fennel was cultivated by the monks as an essential plant in their medical herbal gardens. It was enjoyed by the ancient Greeks, too, and its aromatic seeds are used extensively from Norway to Asia.

Although it’s available all the year round, the cultivated fennel bulb is best during late summer.

One of the fascinating things about fennel is that besides being a vegetable, it is both a herb and a spice. Even its tall woody stalks can be used when dried as a flavouring agent. However, like Marmite, fennel is something you either love because of its strong aniseed flavour, or hate for the same reason.

When buying fennel look for firm, medium-sized bulbs with some stalk and fronds still attached, as Graham did. Then, like him, take a moment to admire their beauty, colour and form before placing them in the cooking pot or adding them to a salad.