The Mighty Fennel
There is a time in July when we wander the shopping aisles slightly lost by the absence of our all time favourite food staple. Indeed for about 8 months of the year we always have fennel at home, eating it most days, but its season is early autumn to late spring, along side cavolo nero, trevisano and other winter vegetables. We often feel the freshness of fennel should be on our table in the summer, but we know there is a reason for this. And this cousin of the carrot is therefore highly appreciated at this time of the year when it is at its new season best.
There are historical records about the use of fennel that go back to the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs (they used it both as food and as a medicine), ancient China (they used it as a snake bite remedy), the Greeks (who called it Marathon “grow thin” because it was thought to be an appetite suppressant – and yes, the race, the battle and the place were named because a lot of fennel grew in that particular place in Attica), the Romans (Pliny was a great fan, and thought snakes rubbed against the plants because it strengthen their eye-sight). Fennel has been used in witchcraft too, for spells and counter spells (for the likes of clairvoyance, protection and virility), as well as used against witches by stuffing fennel in the your keyhole to keep them out. Modern research finds that various parts of the fennel (the bulb or the seeds) have a number of health benefits: it’s a highly nutritious food, it’s good for the heart, it helps lactating women, it is good against acne, its tea can aid digestion, and is a great tool for weight control.
Fennel is a very prominent vegetable in the Mediterranean diet, though it is now spread across the globe and has been embraced by many different cuisines. Both the seeds (picked over the summer from the Bronze Fennel variety) and the bulb (what is know as Florence Fennel) can be used in the kitchen. The seeds are often associated with pork (such as finocchiona salami or in tuscan sausages, or in this wonderful recipe for porkbelly from Sam & Sam Clark’s Moro Cookbook . The bulb is generally used in salads, or braised. Indeed it is the base of one of our favourite winter salads: orange, fennel, olives and anchovies. This salad is crisp, fresh, full of flavour and just the uplift you need in the long winter. We also love this deeply comforting dish from Diana Henry where she combines fennel and broccoli with cream and comte cheese to serve alongside roast chicken.
And so it becomes clear why we need fennel in the winter rather than in the summer: that zing and uplift in salads, soups and roasts are just what you need to balance the strong, full flavours which characterise food in the winter.