I love fennel and all things fennel adjacent. For a long time my tinder bio was “I’m a liquorice bitch”, until someone explained that the Azealia Banks song isn’t about tarragon. My aniseed addiction encompasses everything from dill pickles to finocchiona – a Tuscan salami flavoured with fennel seed. I’ve even been known to enjoy a pastis on occasion (although sambuca has been off the menu ever since a disastrous evening in Amsterdam).
Here in the UK, fennel is as underrated as Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Hook. Although it’s available all year round, it isn’t treated as an everyday ingredient and some people view it with outright suspicion. Unless you have a subscription to Waitrose magazine, fennel probably doesn’t crop up in your weekly repertoire. In Italy they give this vegetable the respect it deserves, like Dustin Hoffman’s performance in The Graduate. Baked in a gratin, eaten raw in a salad: Italians recognise that fennel, like the men in my life, is versatile. Fennel risotto is one of the most delicious Italian creations there is. I won’t wax lyrical about it because Rachel Roddy already has and I urge you to try her recipe. Interestingly, the Italian word for fennel – finnochio – also means queer (hence my hand-poked fennel tramp stamp).
The Mediterranean reverence for fennel stretches back to the ancient Greeks, who were probably the first people to cultivate it. In Greek myth, fennel has a hand in the creation of civilization. When Prometheus steals fire from the gods he smuggles it back to Earth in a giant fennel stalk. I would have done the same if it meant becoming a cultural icon, confident in the belief that even Zeus wouldn’t be able to regrow my worn-out liver. I was obsessed by the idea of giant fennel, which I assumed was just a mythical invention. It turns out this actually exists! Apparently it’s unpleasant to eat but perhaps the hollowed out stalks could be used, in the Promethean tradition, as a way to traffic drugs. If that doesn’t appeal, try hollowing out a normal-sized fennel bulb, baking it briefly in the oven, then stuffing it with something more precious than fire: crab mayonnaise.
Prometheus may have put fennel on the map but it was Dionysus who made it sexy. Dionysus was the illegitimate child of Zeus, who had more bastard offspring than Boris Johnson and Clint Eastwood put together. He was the god of all the good things in life: wine, ecstasy, ritual madness. His female followers, known as Maenads or Bacchae, held parties that would make Berghain look vanilla. Unlike Heaven’s Gate or the Mole Women, this was a cult you wanted to be part of. A key object in these rituals was the thyrsus – a giant fennel stalk topped with a pine cone. Scholars dispute the extent to which the thyrsus was a fertility symbol but to me it reads as one thing and one thing only: the euripiD.
In The Bacchae, one of antiquity’s juiciest tragedies, these fennel staffs hold magical properties. When a bacchic reveller strikes her thyrsus on a rock, water gushes forth. Another woman drives her thyrsus into the ground, creating a fountain of wine (I’ve been through six fennel stalks and not even a trickle of Merlot has appeared). When they weren’t making rocks into water features, the Maenads were using their thyrsi as deadly weapons. At the end of the play, the King’s mother impales her son’s head on one of the staffs and flaunts it around town. I can believe the Maenads’ wine-conjuring and their preternatural strength, but the idea that a fennel stalk could support the weight of a human head is a stretch. The truly tragic thing about The Bacchae is that I didn’t get to be part of it. Not being born in the 4th century BC gives me bacchanal frenzy FOMO, but that’s not the main reason I’d like to go back. What I really want is the chance to ask the god of wine which crisp white he would pair with fennel.
The Romans were even more fennel mad than the Greeks and liked the seeds in particular. Roman soldiers believed fennel seeds would increase their strength – a fact which adds colour to my wife-of-a-centurion fantasy. Centuries later, fennel seeds were used as an appetite suppressant for fasting Christians. If anything these aniseedy nuggets make me hungry for more – one of the many reasons I wouldn’t have fared well in medieval Europe. Things might have been better for me during the reign of Edward I, whose household consumed nearly four kilograms of fennel in one month. The tradition of using fennel to alleviate hunger travelled to North America with the Pilgrims, who would snack on the seeds during long church services. Some historians argue this was just a way for churchgoers to mask the smell of booze on their breath, a helpful thing to bear in mind when there’s no Wrigley’s to hand.
Sadly the spice, like the vegetable, is often forgotten. This is a shame because fennel seeds are delicious in so many things. They work well in frittatas and can help rescue an omelette from mediocrity. My favourite use of fennel seed is as a component in panch phoron, an East Indian spice blend. It uses equal parts fennel, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and black mustard seeds. Panch phoron is particularly delicious with potatoes. Try browning an onion and then adding some tomato puree, salt and a generous pinch of panch phoron. Add diced, parboiled potatoes and a splash of water then cover the pan and cook until the spuds are tender. Give them a squeeze of lime before you tuck in.
We’ve run the gamut of fennel from salami to bacchanalia, but if you’re still not convinced by this vegetable here’s a eulogy from abbess extraordinaire Hildegard of Bingen. She was loco for the stuff, praising its ability to “make us happy, [with] good digestion and good body odour.” And who can argue with that? If it’s good enough for Hildegard…