"...Take wyne greke and honey clarified togider, lumbarde mustard, and raisons,
courance al houl; and grynde powder of canel, powder douce, and aneys hole,
and fenel seed. Take alle thise thynges, and cast togyder in a pot of erthe,
and make thereof whan thou wilt, and serve it forth."
The above is taken from documents setting out the preparation of vegetables at the Court of Richard II. It serves to illustrate that fennel seed was an important flavouring in England at the time. However, fennel has been used for much longer and in many diverse cuisines in three different forms; the seed, the bulb and the leafy fennel tops.
Fennel is in the Umbelliferae, or carrot family. The Latin name refers to the umbrella shape the seeds of this family exhibit as they grow. There are two main species of fennel; bulb and wild.
Bulb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azorium) is often also sold as Florence fennel and finocchio - it's Italian name. This is the regular fennel variety that you will encounter at the greengrocers. It is a perennial plant that grows to a modest height of 1 ft. The leafy tops of the plant double its effective size to 2 ft. All parts of bulb fennel can be eaten. The bulb is mostly treated as a vegetable and can range in size from a large egg up to twice the size of a human fist. It is broken down into overlapping cup-shaped layers and possesses a pleasingly crisp texture not dissimilar to celery, with a correspondingly pale green colour.
The feathery tops are a much deeper green and grow in a dense, yet frond-like manner. They have a slight physical similarity to the fresh herb dill.
Wild, or common fennel (F. vulgare) is harder to locate at the green grocers. It is more likely that you will encounter it growing at the side of the road. Wild fennel is so prolific that it is classified as a botanical pest in several Australian states.
This plant grows much higher than bulb fennel, up to 6 ft. The other major difference is that wild fennel lacks the large bulb for which regular fennel is prized. This variety is mainly cooked as a leafy green, or the leaves and seeds used as flavouring agents.
Both bulb and wild fennel possess a strong aniseed flavour, which is due to the presence of large quantities of anethole, found also in other aniseed-flavoured plants such as star anise and licorice.
As you would expect, with the name Florence fennel, the Italians are very fond of this versatile plant. Quite often an Italian meal is completed with thin slices of the raw bulb, not only as a refreshing palate cleanser, but as a digestive aid as well.
Fennel seed is a very popular spice in Indian cuisine - the enchanting aniseed flavour lending its influence to many spice blends. It is an essential ingredient in the Bengali whole spice mix, panch phora.
The manner in which fennel is prepared will determine its final flavour outcome. When sliced thinly and eaten raw the aniseed flavour comes to the fore. Sliced into thicker wedges and sautéed with garlic and white wine will tone down the aniseed flavour a little, and it becomes a more complexly flavoured vegetable. When cooked slowly, as in fennel roasted with garlic and verjuice, the aniseed flavour disappears almost entirely and is replaced with a meltingly sweet flavour.
Here is a recipe for a quick fennel salad that is wonderful served with grilled fish.
Shaved fennel, tomato and lemon salad
1 medium sized fennel bulb (around 250 gm (1/2 lb))
1 large vine-ripened tomato, thinly sliced
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbs chopped flat leaf parsley
60 ml (2 fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Trim the fennel stalks down to within 1 cm of the top of the bulb. Reserve the leaves if there were any attached. Slice away the woody base of the bulb and remove the outer segments if they are wilted or damaged.
Slice the fennel across the bulb very thinly, either with a mandolin, or a very sharp knife. Place into a bowl with the remaining ingredients. Toss well to combine the flavours and place onto a large platter. If there were any fennel leaves left over, chop them finely and scatter over the salad. Drizzle with a final lug of olive oil to give the finished dish an enticing gloss. Serves 4 as a side dish.