FENNEL USED TO ITS FULLEST
Every year I try to grow Florence fennel ( foeniculum dulce), and every year I get ferny growth aplenty – and tiny inedible bulbs. To add insult to injury, herb fennel ( foeniculum vulgare), grows here like wildfire, right down to the beach. John Evelyn could grow it, recommending “the stalks be peeled when young and then dressed like celery”, and the American consul, on sending fennel seeds to Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, described it as “beyond every other vegetable”, adding that in Italy it was eaten “at dessert – crude, with or without salt”. What we lack here in the South East, is rain. Florence likes lots of moisture and a sunny site. It takes water to swell the base of the stem that forms the fennel bulb, while herb will grow in any soil in profusion – whatever the weather. It was the Romans who turned the one into the other and believed it would make them strong and improve their sight. The Greeks called it Marathon, investing it with all sorts of magic, including appetite suppression; Charlemagne declared it essential in every garden, and fennel was used as a poultice for snakebites. Even modern research proves fennel to be a virtual pharmacopoeia of useful properties, confirming the vegetable to be full of phytonutrients, antioxidants, and lots of vitamin C, while the primary component of the seeds’ volatile oils – anethole – helps reduce inflammation. The seeds themselves aid digestion, are used in colic medicine, and you can try fennel flavoured toothpastes, or chew the seeds to freshen breath after meals. Recent studies by Dr Hassan Pazoki, at the Iranian University of Urmia discovered young women who took drops made from the plants found it helpful when suffering from PMT. As a vegetable, Florence fennel is more than versatile: braise or steam it then serve with fish or pork; deep fry it in light tempura batter; try it sliced with a mandolin with shaved Parmesan, or chopped as a crudité to dip in hummus. My favourite dish is fennel bulbs caramelised in butter and sugar, then covered with goats’ cheese, scattered with roast fennel seeds and grilled. Fennel loses its flavour soon after it has been cut. Revive it, packed in ice with a brief sojourn in the fridge. I love pickled fennel, sliced finely then brined and steeped in cider vinegar with a little honey and fennel seeds. Take two cups of fennel, combine with three teaspoons of salt in a bowl of iced water and leave to pickle for at least two hours. Combine threequarters of a cup of vinegar with half a cup of water, two tablespoons of honey and spices and bring to the boil. Drain the fennel, rinse in water, pack in sterilised jars and cover with the cooled liquor. Make sure your vegetables are completely immersed in the vinegar solution at all times. Allow 2.5cm headroom above the vegetables, don’t be tempted to squash them down, and use vinegar-proof lids. Leave to macerate for a month in a cool place, and keep in the fridge once opened. As a herb, use stems and fronds to flavour any pork or fish dish. Bake pieces of meat or fish in foil in the oven packed with fennel ferns, and barbecue fish on a bed of stems for a really intense flavour. Use the seeds to make your own ras el hanout spice mix with garden lavender, bay leaves, fennel and cumin seeds, rose petals, nutmeg, cloves and peppercorns, roast then grind, to steep in oil, and then dip in chunks of crusty bread. Mix the roasted seeds with black, pink and white peppercorns and salt to make a delicious crust on baked salmon, or combine with chilli in dark chocolate. Umbelliferae are decorative garden plants, both Foeniculum vulgare and its bronze relation will seed and squeeze in readily all over the border, without elbowing out their companions. Decorative cousins, the noble but inedible Ferula communis and tingitana ‘Cedric Morris’ are available from greatdixter. co.uk. Even the wildlife love fennel, especially the foliage beloved by swallowtail caterpillars (and slugs) and the flowers adored by hoverflies and all sorts of beneficial insects.
Versatile: fennel, above, adds flavour to roasted sea bass, top right, and can be used as a refreshing drink,above right
Lasting flavour: fennel, right, can be pickled, above, and the seeds, below, preserved