IF YOU LIKE IT, YOU LOVE IT
Fennel, with the unmistakable aroma, has been known for centuries, and is particularly popular for its versatility. As far back as 5ooo years ago, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans valued wild fennel in the kitchen and as a medicinal plant. It was considered an allrounder as an antispasmodic, expectorant and antibacterial. Over time, however, the bulb fell into oblivion and was not rediscovered until centuries later in the Middle Ages, when the seeds were used to treat bronchial diseases and the roots for stomach ailments. The actual season for the two types of fennel in the Mediterranean region lasts from mid-autumn to spring.
The common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) also called sweet fennel is treated as herb, where the flowers and seeds are used to make teas and spices. The vegetable fennel (Florence fennel) with a bulb-like appearance, is treated like a vegetable. There is also another fennel with a sweet, powerful licorice-like aroma, which is not the same as the cultivated varieties. The wild fennel unlike the others does not produce a nice large edible bulb and is used exclusively as herb. It particularly prefers the warm, dry locations and is valued by gourmets for its aromatic and strongly scented fennel pollen “la Spezia degli angeli”, the so-called angel spice.
Fennel is related to carrots, celery and parsley and belongs to the umbelliferae family (Apiaceae). It has a fist-sized, above ground bulb that can weigh between 250 and 400 grams, green stems and intensely green, feathery tips that are especially popular with bees. The laterally flattened shape and the white-greenish color of the bulb are typical, and the highly captivating smell from fennel is similar to aniseed. Thanks to the high content of essential oils, fennel is used, among other things, to refine soaps and perfumes as well as to flavor sweets, liqueurs, medicines and foods, especially pastries and sweet cucumbers.
The delicate bulb is a unique and low-calorie vegetable, but full of powerful ingredients. All parts of the fennel plant – bulb, stems and the feathery fronds are edible raw and cooked. It is often used in the Mediterranean cuisine and can be combined excellently with other vegetables. Whether for stewing, braising or baking, its aromatic taste harmonizes with meat dishes, fish and seafood, and gives salads a sweet licorice taste. When roasted or seared, fennel turns into a completely different culinary ingredient, losing its typical dominant taste and taking on a mild, delicately aroma reminiscent of caramelized onions.
This article was first published in Issue 16