Fennel, a hardy, perennial, umbelliferous herb, with yellow flowers and feathery leaves, grows wild in most parts of temperate Europe, but is generally considered indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, whence it spreads eastwards to India.
Found growing wild in many parts of the world upon dry soils near the sea-coast and upon river-banks. It flourishes particularly on limestone soils.
Fennel seeds are the dried “fruit” of the fennel plant and herb (Foeniculum vulgare). The plant has feathery leaves, which are used as a herb and it also produces yellow flowers, which when they die, seeds form in clumps, and are collected once they have ripened and hardened. The seeds are oval in shape and a green or greenish brown in colour. They are often mistaken for aniseed, however fennel seeds are slightly larger and less pungent.
For the medicinal use of its fruits, commonly called seeds, Fennel is largely cultivated in the south of France, Saxony, Galicia, and Russia, as well as in India and Persia.
Fennel is a beautiful plant. It has a thick, perennial root-stock, stout stems, 4 to 5 feet or more in height, erect and cylindrical, bright green and so smooth as to seem polished, much branched bearing leaves cut into the very finest of segments. The bright golden flowers, produced in large, flat terminal umbels, with from thirteen to twenty rays.
Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family and is therefore closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander.
Fennel seeds are actually a spice, although the leaves, stalks and roots of the plant are known as a herb. The bulb-like vegetable called fennel, Florence fennel, finocchio or Italian fennel is related to the herb fennel and is similar in taste and flavour, however they are not the same plant.
The Common Garden Fennel (F. Capillaceum or officinale) is distinguished from its wild relative (F. vulgare) by having much stouter, taller, tubular and larger stems, and less divided leaves, but the chief distinction is that the leaf-stalks form a curved sheath around the stem, often even as far as the base of the leaf above. The flower-stalks, or pedicels, of the umbels are also sturdier, and the fruits, 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, are double the size of the wild ones.
There are several varieties of Fennel fruit known in commerce – sweet or Roman Fennel, German or Saxon Fennel, wild or bitter Fennel, Galician Russian and Roumanian Fennel, Indian, Persian and Japanese. The fruits vary very much in length, breadth, taste and other characters, and are of very different commercial value.
Fennel’s aromatic taste is unique, strikingly reminiscent of liquorice and anise, so much so that fennel is often mistakenly referred to as anise.
The seeds and leaves of the fennel plant both have an aniseed or liquorice flavour, although the flavour of fennel is milder and somewhat sweeter than aniseed or liquorice.
Health Benefits of Fennel
Fennel is an excellent source of vitamin C. It is also a very good of dietary fiber, potassium, manganese, folate, and molybdenum. In addition, fennel is a good source of niacin as well as the minerals phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper.
Medicinally fennel seeds have traditionally been used to settle the stomach and digestive system. This is due to the high levels of certain components that are known to prevent muscle spasms and cramps. In the Indian culture, fennel seeds are often chewed after a meal in order to prevent gas or indigestion. The seeds can also be made into an after dinner digestive drink to relieve the same symptoms.
Can relieve bloating and fluid retention.
Reduce all kinds of stomach discomfort and pain.
It can increase the flow of breast milk for nursing mothers.
As a mouthwash, fennel seeds can help to relieve toothache, gum disease and sore throats.
Fennels seeds are said to be a mild expectorant, which means they can help clear congested lungs from phlegm and mucous.
An eyewash can relieve tired, irritated and strained eyes. It has long been believed that a concoction from fennel seeds can improve the eyesight when applied in the eye area.
It has also been long thought that fennel seeds can help with weight-loss and obesity, as chewing on the seeds can suppress hunger.
Can help with bladder infections such as cystitis.
Chewing the seeds will freshen the breath and can take away the smell and taste after eating garlic.
A decoction of the leaves and root is good for serpent bites, and to neutralize vegetable poison, as mushrooms, etc.
The freshest and best quality seeds will be a bright green colour and these are the best seeds for cooking. As the seeds age their colour changes to a darker green and then a brownish green to grey colour.
You can buy the seeds in a whole or ground form. The whole seeds will keep for longer and you can easily grind them yourself at home with a pestle and mortar or a spice mill.
Store the seeds in a dark cupboard away from the sunlight in an airtight glass container. Try to use the seeds within 6 months.
Ideas with cooking with Fennel
In Italy and France, the tender leaves are often used for garnishes and to add flavour to salads, and are also added, finely chopped, to sauces served with puddings. Roman bakers are said to put the herb under their loaves in the oven to make the bread taste agreeably.
The tender stems are employed in soups in Italy, though are more frequently eaten raw as a salad. The Italians eat these peeled stems, which they call ‘Cartucci’ as a salad, cutting them when the plant is about to bloom and serving with a dressing of vinegar and pepper.
Healthy sautéed fennel and onions make a wonderful side dish.
Combine sliced fennel with avocados, and oranges for a delightful fresh salad.
Braised fennel is a wonderful complement to scallops and seafood alike.
Next time you are looking for a new way to adorn your sandwiches, consider adding sliced fennel in addition to the traditional toppings of lettuce and tomato.
Top thinly sliced fennel with plain yoghurt and mint leaves.
Fennel is a match made in Heaven when served with salmon.
The three different parts of fennel—the base, stalks and leaves—can all be used in cooking.
Cut the stalks away from the bulb at the place where they meet. If you are not going to be using the intact bulb in a recipe, then first cut it in half, remove the base, and then rinse it with water before proceeding to cut it further. Fennel can be cut in a variety of sizes and shapes, depending upon the recipe and your personal preference. The best way to slice it is to do so vertically through the bulb. If your recipe requires chunked, diced or julienned fennel, it is best to first remove the harder core that resides in the center before cutting it. The stalks of the fennel can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as an herb seasoning. As well as flavouring certain meats and poultry, fennel is more frequently used to flavour fish and seafood in particular.
In India fennel seeds are one of the ingredients of the common spice blend panch poran, which also contains mustard and fenugreek seeds and cumin and are used to flavour curries.