Food for thought
0 n visits this summer to several grand gardens — Buckingham Palace, Highgrove, Hadspen, to drop a few names — I have noticed that all have fennel growing among the flowers in their herbaceous borders. The green or bronze feathery leaves on tall stems, together with the yellow flowerheads which should now be coming out, look well against other colours. Of course, the herbaceous border is by definition the place for herbs, but more often these days they tend to be confined to their own patch.
For centuries fennel was recommended as a cure for diverse complaints: asthma, toothache, flatulence. (Gripe water, the traditional babiesdrink, has fennel in it so, I think, does that intoxicating liqueur, kilmrnel, which has a rather similar taste.) An infusion was also used to revive tired eyes, and even to improve eyesight, according to Longfellow:
The fennel with the yellow flowers ...
Was gifted with the wondrous powers.
Lost vision to restore.
Fennel must once have been an emblem of flattery, in Italy at any rate, where the expression dare finocchio, 'to give fennel', meant to flatter. This may sometimes have caused confusion, since finocchio can also mean a homosexual, though I'm not sure whether it did in earlier centuries. Goldsmith wrote of 'aspen boughs, and flowers and fennel gay', but he can hardly be credited with having anticipated the modern usage of that word by about 200 years.
Finocchio fennel is usually taken today to refer to what we call Florence fennel, which has a bulbous, overground root topped by green fronds. In addition to the cultivated fennel herb, there is also a wild plant, more bitter in taste, which is commonly found near Mediterranean coasts and grows less prolifically in this country. It was probably this fennel that Longfellow was referring to, and which he may have come across in his native Maine.
The dried seeds of fennel are added to curries, puddings, sweets; but the overwhelming use for fennel — seeds, leaves, stalks and roots — is with fish, which no doubt has something to do with the fact that wild fennel generally grows close to the sea.
Scanning a few books, I have found recipes for fennel (leaves and/or stalks) with herrings, sardines, mackerel and monkfish. Rick Stein likes to combine chopped fennel and pastis in a sauce or
mayonnaise; and at the River Café they cook bass on a bed of Florence fennel, fennel seeds. parsley stalks and lemon slices. Then there is the classic grillade au fenouit In Provencal markets you can buy bunches of dried fennel stalks expressly for the purpose of stuffing them into red mullet and putting a layer of them between fish and grill. Armagnac should then be poured over the cooked mullet and fennel and set alight, allowing the fennel to burn and give still more of its aniseed flavour to the fish.
The finocchio fennel can be grown successfully in Britain, but it does require the right conditions: a rich soil, a warm summer and plenty of moisture. A spell of dry weather, albeit unlikely in this country, will inhibit the growth of the roots which, as soon as they start to swell, should be earthed up in the same way as celery. This fennel is frequently blanched and braised, with butter and a sprinkling of grated fresh Parmesan, or made into fritters, which are popular in Italy — and in this household, after I made them last weekend. But it should also be thinly sliced raw in a salad, possibly with tomatoes and asparagus and an olive oil and lemon dressing.
Getting away from fish, fennel (seeds and leaves) goes well with a casserole of pork, garlic and white wine, and last week I noticed that Lidgate's, one of the best butchers in London, was selling Sicilian sausages which contained fennel seeds. Florence fennel with fruit is not a combination I have tried, but Nigel Slater (in Real Fast Food) comes up with a salad of pink grapefruit, sliced raw fennel, olives and cream.
And I return to Italy, and the 17th century, for a recipe which incorporates fennel and gooseberries (a combination also recommended with mackerel). The fennel should be boiled, then quartered and added to capon broth, with gooseberries, cream and pine nuts which have been steeped in rosewater and crushed. Thicken the sauce with egg yolks beaten with lemon juice, and put slices of fried bread under the fennel. This is described as a delicate minestra, to be served with a powdering of cinnamon. I think I might leave out the cinnamon, but the rest of it sounds delicious.