An annual culinary herb that is grown for both the fresh leaves and the dried seed.
The fresh herb (Anethum graveolens) grows to a height of 1 metre and has delicate, wispy dark green foliage. The leaves appear as hair-like filaments and grow in attractive fronds that resemble the tops of fennel. The plant bears small, pale yellow flowers and is closely related to parsley, caraway, coriander and cumin.
Dill seeds are not true seeds at all, but the tiny fruit of the plant that have been split in halves. They are light brown in colour with three pale lines running the length of the seed.
Dill is native to the Eastern Mediterranean and Southern Russia and evidence of its cultivation has been traced back as far as 3000 BC. The Romans believed the herb to be a symbol of strength and vitality, and hence placed sheaths of dill over food to be served to gladiators. The name derives from the Old Norse dilla, which means to soothe, perhaps from the once held belief of a carminative effect the seed had on troubled digestive tracts.
The flavour of fresh dill is wonderfully subtle, yet with pointed, parsley and anise-like highlights. It has the ability to pair with many dishes, particularly light meat, such as poultry and fish, as well as vegetable dishes. It has long been closely associated with cured and smoked fish of Scandinavian origin, perhaps explaining why the herb is most popular in those regions.
The seed is often used in spice blends, notably the marvelously evocative ras el hanout of Morocco, and is cooked whole in braises and vegetable dishes. It greatest fame, however lies with pickling, especially cucumbers and cornichons. Hence the name dill pickle.
Try the following recipe which combines two of dill's most famous collaborators, salmon and potato. It makes a superb starter for an elegant dinner party.
Gin cured salmon with spunta potatoes, crème fraiche and dill
Cut the potato in half lengthways. Place the cut side down on a chopping board. Working again lengthways, cut into slices as thin as you can manage. Aim for 2 mm. Use a mandolin if you own one. Place in a saucepan with the peeled garlic clove, salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil. As soon as the water has reached boiling, remove from the heat and drain the potatoes.
Chop half the dill finely. Place in a bowl with the crème fraiche, and some salt and pepper. Mix well until you have a pouring consistency. Add more cream if necessary. Pick the remaining dill into fronds.
Place a few leaves of rocket on the base of four plates. Add a few slices of potato, then some cured salmon. Drizzle with a little crème fraiche. Continue stacking in this order until all the salmon has been used. Drizzle over the remaining crème fraiche and add a splash of olive oil on top. Garnish with the remaining dill, cracked pepper and quarters of lemon.