Fennel is a biennial herb sometimes grown as a perennial in Zones 7 and higher. It is native to the Mediterranean region, where it has been in cultivation for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks called it marathon — and it gave its name to the city-state that is famous in Geek legend and for the Battle of Marathon, which took place in 490 BC. The Romans were also fond of fennel, and took the plant to many of their settlements across Europe, where it remains naturalized today. The Roman author Pliny the Elder cites twenty-two different medicinal applications for fennel, and it has enjoyed a place in nearly every herbal encyclopedia since that time. Most of the modern world’s culinary fennel is produced in Syria.
Fennel has two forms. The first is the familiar herb that resembles dill, but with finer, more feathery leaves. These may be bright green to deep bronze in colour. The second form is bulb fennel, also known as Florence fennel or finocchio. Bulb fennel shares all the scent and flavour with its herbal sibling, but forms a swollen leaf base (not a true bulb) at the base of its stem. This form is cultivated only, and is not found in nature. Though the swollen leaf base grows above ground, it is treated as a root vegetable by chefs. The bulb is crisp, and may be sliced and eaten raw, but it softens and becomes milder when it is cooked and imparts a wonderful flavour to stews. It can also be sautéed or grilled and served as a side vegetable.
A member of the family Apiaceae, fennel is closely related to dill, caraway, carrots, cilantro, celery, and parsley. All of these plants produce tall umbels of flowers, and many, like fennel, do so in their second year of growth. Fennel’s golden yellow flowers are followed by abundant seeds that are widely used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, but also in India, and as a component of the Chinese five-spice powder. The seeds, like the leaves and stalks, and even the pollen, have an anise-like flavour of mild licorice.
The Russian River Valley Winegrowers host an annual Crab & Fennel Fest near Russian River, California in March. Masses of fresh, local Dungeness crab, specialty fennel dishes, and local wine are offered “in a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere.” Sounds lovely!
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