For the longest time, fennel was relegated to the specialty supermarkets and, even there, it was only possible to find a couple of sorry-looking bunches at exorbitant prices. It’s a shame, because fennel is such a lovely, fresh tasting and versatile vegetable, less boring than flavorless tomatoes or carrots.
Fennel is quintessentially Mediterranean although it’s a perennial resistant plant that followed the Romans wherever they went to colonize and it now grows pretty much everywhere. Its name is decisively Latin but in Greek it was called “marathon” and the famous Battle of Marathon took its name from the “place where the fennel grows”. Who knew that between fennel and running long distance there is only one degree of separation.
I doubt the Romans used fennel in salads like we do – most of its applications were restricted to the medicinal usage. Like licorice root, fennel is a laxative and in ancient Rome it was thought to protect and enhance eyesight – in India they still believe it does. No scientific link has been established but eating fennel seeds is said to increase a lactating mother’s milk.
Fennel seeds are very similar in taste to anise seeds and are seldom confused. Both anise and fennel are the base for the absinthe, a liquor that has a new-found popularity now that the poisonous element that made it famous has been removed. Incidentally, absinthe comes from Switzerland where it was used as an elixir and not to drive poets mad. If you ever find yourself lacking toothpaste, chewing some fennel will instantly clean your mouth – although finding toothpaste in a pinch might be easier than finding fennel.
Tonight I grilled my fennel for the first time. I sliced it, coated it in olive oil and grilled it (broiling it is another option). Then I added it to a panzanella salad made of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and stale cubed bread that I slightly toasted. I tossed it with salt and pepper, olive oil and red vinegar and it was a great accompaniment to the meats that came off the grill. Not only that – after having done my fennel research, while munching on it, I mused that there are so many more threads that we think that still tie us to ancient history and I love that food is one of them. And a powerful one too.