Fennel, Florence fennel, sweet fennel, finocchio, bulb fennel
(Foeniculum sp. – Family Umbelliferae)
Fennel is a biennial or perennial grown as an annual for its pungent swollen leafbases (not a true bulb), leaves, and seeds. Fennel is native to the Near East and the Mediterranean, where it grows wild in dry, stony places. Of the three types of fennel grown for food – pepper or Italian fennel (ssp. piperitum), cultivated as a vegetable in Italy, sweet or Florence fennel (var. dulce), and bitter fennel (var. vulgare) – the primary interest is in the Florence fennel. The name finocchio is the general Italian word for fennel, but used in other countries to distinguish the Florence from other types. Sweet fennel tends to revert to bitterness when old, showing that it may not be a separate species after all.
When Portuguese explorers first landed on Madeira in 1418, they found the air fragrant with the aroma of wild fennel. The city of Funchal was then named funcho, the Portugese name for the plant. Florence fennel was popular with the Greeks and Romans, whose soldiers ate it to maintain good health, while the ladies chewed the stalks to thwart off obesity. In medieval times, seeds were eaten during Lent to alleviate hunger, and still used by dieters to suppress the appetite. The first records of its cultivation in England date from the early 18th century, when the 3rd Earl of Peterborough cultivated it and ate it as a dessert. In 1824, Thomas Appleton, the American consulate in Florence, sent some seeds to Thomas Jefferson with a glowing report. Jefferson planted them in his garden in Virginia; and, not too long after, America’s fascination with Mediterranean food began to flourish, both in the garden and in the culinary arts.
Fennel has swollen leafbases, commonly called bulbs, that have the texture of tender celery. The delicate feathery leaves have been cultivated for centuries as an ornamental border. The wild fennel lacks the swollen base; therefore, its leaves are used solely as an herb. Fennel is a good source of potassium and has some beta carotene, and is usually eaten raw or lightly steamed. It is used medicinally for treatment of flatulence, colic, urinary disorders, and constipation, as well as an eye bath or a compress to reduce inflammation. Recent research indicates that fennel also reduces the effects of alcohol, and chewing it sweetens the breath. An infusion can be used as a mouthwash or gargle to aid in the healing of gum disease or sore throats. Fusions using the seeds and roots help strengthen the digestion, treat ulcers, and suppress the appetite. However, excessive doses of the oil should not be taken, nor should it be given to pregnant women.
Strangely, the sweet, anise-flavoured Florence varieties were developed from a wild, bitter variety with no anise flavour. Florence fennel comes in different shapes that can be elongated, narrow bulbs, or rounded almost spherical. All parts of the plant have the same mild anise flavour: seeds, foliage, and stalks. The main growing areas are southern Italy, the south of France, Spain, Greece, and North Africa. Florence fennel is earthed up, to blanch it, as it develops. Thought to have originated in Italy, sweet fennel was first distinguished in an edict by Charlemagne in the 9th century, who ordered it to be grown in the south of France.
Wild fennel is sold complete with its elongated bulbs, roots, and abundant green leaves and, sometimes, inaccurately labeled as anise. White fennel and anise are from the same family (Apiaceae), but not so with the other fennels. Bronze fennel is the same as the common, leaf, or sweet fennel and only varies in colour, although it does not bulb at the base as the Florence fennel does. The green ranges from medium to very deep, with hints of purplish-brown and not a true bronze. Although it has a pleasant aroma, the flavour is rather forceful and not sweet. It can be a bit overpowering if eaten raw.
Originally, the seeds, roots, and leaves were used only for medicinal purposes. This is depicted in an Egyptian papyrus dating from 1500 BCE and from the writings of the Greeks and the Romans. Wild fennel has a slightly bitter flavour, much like that of celery seed, and does not have the same flavour as the sweet or the Florence fennel, which is better known in Western Europe and America. Therefore, the two cannot be used interchangably in recipes. Celery seed would be a better substitute.
Some varieties include Cantino, Fino (Zefa Fino), Herald, Perfection, Sirio, Sweet Florence, and Tardo (Zefa Tardo). If a few plants are left to flower, they become extremely attractive to a large number of beneficial insects which prey on garden pests. Fennel should not be planted near beans, kohlrabi, and tomatoes as it will have a detrimental affect on their growth.