The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Life Food Special Gardening -

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

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