Fennel is a biennial or perennial herb, generally considered a native of southern Europe, though common on all Mediterranean shores. It has spread with civilization, especially where Italians have colonized, and may be found growing wild in many parts of the world, upon dry soils near the sea coast and upon river banks.
Fennel seems to be partial to limestone soils, such as the chalky lands of England and the shelly formation of Bermuda.
History of Fennel
The plant was cultivated by the ancient Romans for its aromatic fruits and succulent, edible shoots. Whether cultivated in northern Europe at that time is not certain, but it is frequently mentioned in Anglo-Saxon cookery prior to the Norman Conquest. Charlemagne ordered its culture upon the imperial farms.
At present, fennel is most popular in Italy and France. Like many other plants, fennel has had a highly interesting career from a medical point of view. But it no longer plays even a small part in the drama.
Description of Fennel
Common gardenor long, sweetfennel is distinguished from its wild relative by having much stouter, taller (five to six feet) and larger stems and less divided leaves. But a still more striking difference is seen in the leaf stalks, which form a curved sheath around the stem even as far up as the base of the leaf above. The green fennel flowers are borne on sturdy pedicels in broad umbels. The sweet fennel seeds are double the size of the wild fennel seeds, and can reach 1/2 and inch long. These seeds are convex on one side, flat on the other and are marked by five yellowish ribs.
It would not be wise to throw away any fennel seeds where it is not wanted to grow, unless it is over four years old, as it grows rather easily.
In usual garden practice fennel is propagated by seeds and is grown as an annual instead of as a biennial or a perennial. The plants will flourish in almost any well-drained soil but seem to prefer light loams of a limy nature. Fennel is a rather easy herb to grow and is not particular as to exposure.
Here are a few more guidelines as to the growing and cultivating of fennel as a culinary herb.
- The seeds may be sown in nursery beds or where the plants are to remain.
- In the beds, the drills may be six inches apart and not more than three inches deep or the seed may be scattered.
- An ounce will be enough for a bed 10 feet square.
- When the plants are about three inches tall they should be transplanted 15 or 18 inches asunder in rows two to two-and-a-half feet apart.
- Some growers sow in late summer and in autumn so as to have early crops the following season.
- The plants will grow more or less in very cold, though not actually freezing, weather.
- For family use, half an ounce of seed, if fairly fresh, will produce an ample supply of plants and for several years, either from the established roots or by reseeding.
- Unless seed is needed for household or sowing purposes, the flower stems should be cut as soon as they appear.
- By sowing at intervals of a week or 10 days, Italian gardeners manage to have a supply almost all the year.
Cooking with Fennel
Fennel is a very popular European culinary herb and is considered indispensable in French and Italian cookery. As with many herbs, fennel has uses outside of cooking. Fennel is frequently used in perfumes and scented soaps.
As a culinary herb is where fennel is used most often. Here are a few of the ways people cook with fennel.
- Oil of fennel, a pale yellow liquid with a sweetish aromatic odor and flavor, is distilled with water.
- The famous “Carosella” of Naples consists of the stems cut when the plant is about to bloom. These stems are considered a great delicacy served raw with the leaf stalks still around them. Oil, vinegar and pepper are eaten with them.
- The seeds are used in cookery, confectionery and for flavoring liquors.
- The tender stems and the leaves are employed in soups and fish sauces.
- The young plants and leaves are minced and added to sauces usually served with puddings.
- The young plants and the tender leaves are often used for garnishes and to add flavor to salads.
Kains, M.G. (1912). Culinary Herbs: Their Cultivation, Harvesting, Curing and Uses. Retrieved April 3, 2008, from the Project Gutenberg Web site: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21414/21414-h/21414-h.htm#Page_59.