FR: Anet doux, Fenouil GER: Fenchel IT: Finocchio SP: Hinojo
BOT: Foeniculum vulgare, var. dulce, sativum etc.
FAM: Umbelliferae ILL: Plate 6, Nos. 1, 1a
Fennel is a hardy perennial often grown as an annual. It is a large plant, standing up to six feet high, with yellow flower heads and bright green feathery leaves. It can be grown very easily in any ordinary soil from seed sown in April and will stand for several years, especially if it is not allowed to flower.
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Fennel is used both as a herb and for its aromatic seed. There are also varieties grown for the bulbous stalk bases (Florence fennel) and for the stalks (carosella). These are popular vegetables, particularly in Italy, but they require careful cultivation in a suitable climate to be of much value.
Fennel is native to southern Europe, where it has been used since time immemorial. The Romans used it a great deal and, no doubt, were responsible for introducing it into Britain. It was later taken to America and today in California it is one of the most common naturalized weeds. Commercially, fennel is grown for seed in many countries, particularly in France, Germany and Italy, but also in India, Japan and America. Indeed, there is scarcely a country outside the humid tropics where one will not find fennel being grown for seed. The leaf can be dried by modern methods or quick frozen, although it does not keep very well in the refrigerator. It is best to arrange a fresh supply, and one plant will suffice the average family.
The flavour of fennel varies greatly according to the type. Wild fennel is slightly bitter and has no anise flavour. Sweet (or Roman) fennel, on the other hand, lacks the bitter principle and tastes strongly of anise. In fact, it contains large quantities of the essential oil, anethole, which makes up ninety per cent of the essential oil in anise itself. Bitter fennel is the type most cultivated in central Europe and Russia, whilst the sweet fennel is the type usually grown in Italy, France and Greece. It makes quite a difference which type is used for flavouring.
In English cookery, fennel was well established before the Norman Conquest and was traditional all over Europe in its use with both fresh and salted fish. Indeed, so firmly did fennel become linked with fish that very poor people on fast days are said to have eaten fennel alone, whilst the rich ate the fennel with the fish. Fennel is still used with fish, in the court bouillon for fish, as fennel sauce, finely chopped in mayonnaise and in stuffing. Perhaps the most curious use of fennel is in the well-known Provencal grillade au fenouil, in which loup de mer (sea bass), red mullet, or sometimes trout is grilled and then flamed in brandy on a bed of dried fennel which burns and imparts a unique flavour.
Fennel is particularly good with pork (Italy), with sucking pig and in marinades for wild boar. Finely chopped, it can be used with veal and in soups, vinaigrette sauces and salads. Italian cooking in particular contains recipes in which the flavour of fennel is an important part. The green seed of wild fennel is especially nice and is often included in the bouquet used for cooking snails. The seed of fennel is a useful spice with a flavour something like anise but not so sweet. It had a great reputation in medicine long before the green plant was used as a culinary herb and, with dill, is still a common ingredient of the gripe water given to babies. It is, in fact, a good digestive and, according to some authorities, also an aid in slimming; but its uses in cooking are not many. In Florence, there is a kind of salami called finocchiona flavoured with fennel seed. In India, it is sometimes used in curries, but even more frequently as a digestive breath sweetener to be chewed after meals. The vegetable variety of fennel, known as Florence fennel or finocchio, is a kind of ‘bulb’ formed by the swollen bases of the stalks. The flavour of this vegetable when raw is very delicately of anise and it is liked in salads by almost everybody. Less well known is the variety of fennel known as carosella or cartucci, which makes a feature of the peeled stems and is popular in southern Italy. Fennel is used in the preparation of various alcoholic drinks and the liqueur, fenouillette, depends on it. Fennel root was one of the flavourings of sack, a drink based on mead and popular at the time of Shakespeare.