Falling for Fennel

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Picture courtesy Nick WarnerPicture courtesy Nick WarnerDiscover what the people of the Mediterranean region have known about fennel for centuries, their many creative uses for this summer vegetable will have you falling for fennel! Many people are familiar with fennel only in the form of the seeds which are found in various spice blends, where they're hidden away amongst the other flavours. As a result, the first time they're exposed to fresh fennel, the mildly liquorice-like flavour can be a surprise.

Like Marmite, or black jelly beans, fennel is something that you either love or hate, but if you fall in the love side, fennel will inspire you to try recipes from around the world, some that you would probably never even have imagined. Whether it’s starring in a salad, braised to melting perfection, or crumbed and fried until golden, this super-star is just simply delicious!

Although common fennel grows wild in most parts of temperate Europe, it is generally considered indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean (southern Europe, western Asia, and North Africa). In these regions it is a common culinary ingredient, lending its anise flavours, together with a distinct bitterness and lemony citric sharpness, to a multitude of culinary delights. Think warm, Mediterranean flavours when cooking with fennel - like tomatoes, red onion and peppers.

Try a simple yet refreshing Italian "fennel citrus salad" – it’s really hard to beat the classic combination of crunchy fennel and sweet and tangy citrus fruit. "Finocchio al forno" (fennel baked in cream) is made with just three ingredients; fennel, cream, and Parmesan cheese. It is simple to make, and sure to delight the whole family.

Fennels sharp, lemony fresh flavour pairs beautifully with fish and shellfish and can be used to flavour a classic “bouillabaisse, or to simply garnish a “scallop and tuna ceviche”.  Bouillabaisse is traditionally a humble Mediterranean fisherman’s stew from the French port city of Marseilles, made with local fish and shellfish, fennel and olive oil. Other ingredients like saffron and orange peel are products of ancient Mediterranean trade; and the cayenne pepper, which is also a typical addition to the stew, is a New World ingredient from the great Columbian Exchange. Traditionally bouillabaisse was made with the leftover cuts of fish which the restaurants wouldn’t buy, and today, recipes for bouillabaisse vary from family to family in Marseille, with local restaurants disputing which versions are the most authentic. If you have ever travelled to this region, you are sure to have sampled this outrageously delicious bowl of human bliss!

The use of fennel is not only limited to Mediterranean cuisines, in Alsace, a historical region in north-eastern France, on the Rhine River plain bordering Germany and Switzerland, which has alternated between German and French control over the centuries and reflects a mix of those cultures, fennel seed is added to sauerkraut. In Iraq the seeds are used to flavour breads; and they are also is one of the five components of "Chinese five-spice powder", as well as the Indian five-spice mixture, "panch phoron".

You are likely to be so inspired by fennel that you want to try your hand at growing your own, and why not, fennel has been cultivated since classical times!  In fact, no garden should be without fennel, because not only is it delicious and very pretty, but it also has many medicinal uses.

Fennel seeds were an important trading spice, and mentioned by the Egyptians about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The ancient Greeks called it “marathon” depicting it on their flags and scarves. King Charlemagne, a medieval emperor who ruled much of Western Europe from 768 to 814, grew fennel on his imperial farms, and the roasted seeds became so popular that inns served them as digestives before, during and after meals.

The early Anglo Saxons, who have inhabited Great Britain from the 5th century, used both the leaves and seeds for the treatment of jaundice and biliousness, as well as a gentle laxative. Fennel seed was served to diners and became known as “anethole”. With travellers purchasing little pouches of these precious seeds to plant at home, the plant spread far and wide, and today, a mix of ‘digestive seeds’ containing fennel, caraway, aniseed and cumin are still served to diners in countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Fennel has followed civilization, especially where Italians have colonized, and it has been naturalized throughout much of Europe, North America, Central America, South America, the Pacific (Hawaii, Fiji, New Caledonia, Niue and French Polynesia), and Australia.

In the wild, fennel is commonly found growing on dry soils near the sea-coast and on river-banks; flourishing on limestone soils. In the wild this hardy perennial herb of the parsley family can reach 2 to 2.5m tall, and is easily identified by its hollow stems, distinctly divided feathery foliage, and umbels of small yellow flowers in midsummer. Tiny seeds follow the flowers in late summer; and can be greenish, yellowish-brown or greyish, with yellow ridges.

Its tantalising liquorice like taste is still used today to flavour many dishes, and intensely flavoured oil is produced by the food industry from fennel seeds, to flavour sausages, processed meats, sauces, salad dressings and pastries.

The seeds are often added to liqueurs, and one of the ingredients used in making absinthe. Fennel seeds are also used extensively to flavour toothpaste, mouthwash, chewing gum, and in sweets formulated to sooth flatulence, colic and heartburn. Its fragrance is also used in soaps, perfumes and air fresheners.

Fennel is safe to use for babies and young children and is still used today in gripe water to sooth colicky babies. It is also a superb diuretic, flushing toxins out of the body, and has become known as the "slimmer's herb". It is an effective treatment for respiratory congestion, a common ingredient in cough remedies, and a soothing gargle for hoarseness and sore throats. One cup of sliced fennel bulb has 27 calories and contains 2.7 grams of fibre; and is a good source of vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium, folate and vitamin A.

Anethole, the aromatic compound which gives fennel its aniseed flavour is also found in anise and star anise, and its taste and aroma are similar to theirs, though usually not as strong. All parts of the plant are edible and the bulb, foliage, stems and seeds are widely used in many of the culinary traditions of the world.

Fennel seeds can be used as a spice, either ground or whole, and are used throughout the Mediterranean for soups, stews and sauces. It is a mainstay in Italian cooking, and famous for giving Italian link sausages their distinctive flavour. A delicious Sicilian dish uses the finely chopped tender fronds for patties fried in olive oil, using egg, grated parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Florence fennel bulb is a key ingredient in some Italian and German salads, often tossed with chicory and avocado. The seeds are also used for pickling, in herbal vinegars or oils, and when baking breads and cakes.

The tall, woody stalks are dried and often used in French provincial cooking when grilling various types of meat, and the bulb of Florence fennel is eaten raw, or sautéed, stewed, braised and even grilled.  In Spain, the stems are used in the preparation of pickled eggplants, called “berenjenas de Almagro”.

Many cultures in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East use fennel seed in their cookery. In Syria and Lebanon, the young leaves are used to make a special kind of egg omelette called “ijjeh”; and it is also one of the most important spices in Kashmiri Pandit and Gujarati cooking.

The distinct aroma of Bengali and Chinese cuisine is mostly due to the blend of spices known as “Panch phoron“ or “Bengali Five-Spice blend” and “Chinese five-spice powders”. Fennel seeds are one of the ingredients in these traditional mixes.

Bengali “Panch phoron” is a colourful blend of flavourful seeds including: fennel seed, black mustard and nigella seeds, golden fenugreek and cumin seeds. Some variations may substitute anise for the fennel seeds or wild mustard for cumin, radhuni (celery) seed for mustard, and possibly black cumin for nigella. Generally the ingredients are added in equal proportions, though this can vary according to taste.

“Panch phoron” is usually fried in oil or ghee before adding anything else to the pot, flavouring the oil and releasing the aroma of the oils in the seeds and causing them to pop in the pan. Other ingredients are added at this point, and this mixture of spices will add sweetness and bring forward the flavours of vegetables, beef, fish or lentils.

Chinese five-spice powders include ground cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, star anise and sichuan peppercorns (xanthoxylum peperitum) – a plant native to the Sichuan province of China and not related to black pepper. In many parts of India and Pakistan, roasted fennel seeds are consumed as “mukhwas”, an after-meal digestive and breath-freshener.

Chefs all around the world have mastered how to use fennel in so many simple, but mouth-watering ways, and so can you. Whether you are harnessing its roasted caramel-sweetness for warm dishes, or its raw lemony freshness in fennel “granite” - a type of Italian dessert similar to a sorbet - exploring the flavours of fennel will take you to places you never imagined!
The attractive feathery, blue-green or purple leaves of fennel have a fern-like appearance and look lovely if grouped with flowering annuals in the mixed flower or perennial border. The beautiful umbels of golden yellow flowers appear in midsummer attracting bees and butterflies to the garden; followed by a profusion of seeds.

Do not plant fennel near to coriander, caraway or dill, or they will cross pollinate, producing weak offspring with little flavour.

Common Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) does not form a bulb and is grown for its leaves, stems and seeds.

Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare"Purpureum") is a decorative garden plant which does not form a bulb, but the eye catching purple leaves have a sweet, liquorice flavour and provide contrast to flower borders. Treat it as a perennial by cutting back the flowering heads to encourage new leaf growth.

Florence Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. Dulce) is an annual crop which is grown mainly for its bulbous fleshy base that is relished as a vegetable, but the stems and seed can also be utilised. There are several cultivars of Florence fennel, and, for the best texture and flavour, the bulbs are generally harvested when they are about the size of a tennis ball.

Fennel is an evergreen perennial which is usually grown as an annual in South Africa, but in frost free regions it can be treated as a short lived perennial. In the cooler regions of South Africa, seed can be sown from spring to autumn; but because hot temperatures and humidity tend to induce bolting, in the rest of the country fennel is an excellent intermediate to cool season crop, sown in late summer or early spring before the weather gets too hot. Bear in mind that although fennel is hardy to frost, it does not always survive a cold and wet winter, and will need a sheltered position if grown in the winter rainfall regions.

Fennel seed germinates quickly and easily when sown directly into garden beds. Plant the seeds 1 to 3cm deep, and remember that this tall growing plant which can reach 1 to 1.5m also needs room to spread. Space the plants at least 50cm apart, with about 60cm between the rows. The seedlings transplant easily but will need to be shaded and protected from extreme heat and wind. Water well until they establish themselves, and about twice a week thereafter. Although fennel loves full sun, it will also grow well in semi shade or full morning or afternoon sun.

The plants need to grow fast in order to produce the best quality bulbs and leaves; so prepare your beds well  with lots of added compost or manure and a dressing of organic 2:3:2. Water moderately but regularly as irregular irrigation will result in the stalks splitting. Once the seedlings are growing vigorously, the plants will benefit from the addition of nitrogen fertiliser every two weeks, but care should be taken not to over feed Florence fennel, which will result in too much leaf growth, at the expense of the bulbs. Keep the beds free of weeds which compete for moisture and nutrients. Protect the plants from strong wind and stake the flowers if you wish to harvest the seeds.

Fennel crops sown in early to midsummer will be ready to harvest in about 14 weeks, while crops sown in autumn may take up to 20 weeks to mature.

Do not leave Florence fennel bulbs in the ground for too long or they will become stringy, and the flavour very strong. Remember, they depend on cool weather for bulb development, and if the weather becomes unseasonably warm, all types of fennel will bolt. This means it will produce flowers too soon and the bulb won’t form. If possible, use fennel bulbs right away while the flavour is most potent. If you can’t use it all immediately, fennel will store in an airtight plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week, but remember your bulb will begin to lose flavour as soon as it is cut; so try to only harvest what you need at one time.

Bronze and common fennel stalks, and the young, tender leaves can be harvested as required. Finish harvesting before the plants start flowering and the texture and flavour of the stalks is compromised. If you want to harvest some seeds as well, leave some stems on the plants to sustain the plant during this time. The perfect time to harvest the seeds is once they are fully developed but still slightly green in colour.

Fennel will self-seed itself prolifically in the garden if a few flowering stems are left on the plants.

If grown correctly, fennel suffers from few pests and diseases, but may be susceptible to fungal diseases like powdery and downy mildew. It is also susceptible to snails and slugs, eelworms (nematodes), cutworm and aphids.

Caution: Because fennel is a uterine stimulant, avoid high doses during pregnancy; but using small amounts in food is fine. Fennel essential oil (not the tincture, which is in an alcohol base) can cause respiratory problems, vomiting, skin irritation, and seizures at very low quantities.