Fennel, the Sweetest Vegetable

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In a recent installment of Ecocentric Blog’s on-going column “Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It“, Megan Saynisch gives praise to fennel.

Fennel is a tricky thing for some people to embrace, given its natural licorice-like sweetness, but those that do are rewarded with a vegetable with a wide range of flavors and cooking applications.

Ms. Saynisch discusses her own circuitous path to enjoying this flavorful bulb:

I don’t think I liked fennel until (cough) well into my 30s. I guess it took my palate that long to appreciate the delicate, anise-like flavor fresh fennel and its seeds impart. I eased into fennel eating by using the feathery fronds as a garnish for salads and soup – but it wasn’t until I fell in love and got married that my devotion to fennel really began. My husband’s Italian-American family, originally from Southern Italy (Bari, to be specific) do a lot of wonderful things with fennel and anise (a fennel relative), including cake-like cookies with fennel seeds on Easter and chunks of fresh fennel bulbs to end meals. (And of course, lots of anise-y sambuca with after-dinner coffee.) Their culinary family traditions made me a fennel believer, and I’m so glad I converted.

A Brief History

Fennel is native to the Mediterranean, where wild (a.k.a., “bitter”) fennel still grows. Although exact dates are lost to the sands of time, fennel was likely first cultivated in either Greece or Italy and was used for both medicinal and culinary purposes.  The ancient Greeks and Romans had quite a thing for fennel, eating the seeds, blossoms and the fronds. Pliny The Elder, the ancient Roman author famous for his sweeping encyclopedia, Natural History, mentions fennel numerous times as a treatment for stomachache, to care for the “stings of serpents,” for uterus health and as a treatment for a bunch of other weird ancient Roman maladies.

Florence fennel (also called finocchio or “sweet anise”), the variety eaten as a vegetable, wasn’t developed until the 17th century in Italy. Although many recipes make reference to fennel “root,” it is actually the stalk, swollen into a bulb-like shape at the plant’s base, which is consumed (a similarly common misperception applies to kohlrabi) .

Factual Nibbles

  • In Greek mythology, Prometheus brings fire to humans by hiding it in a hollowed-out fennel stem.
  • Fennel is a favorite food of Eastern Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.
  • In some places in the US, fennel has become an invasive species.
  • Try this fun experiment: chew fennel seeds. Take a sip of water. Does the water taste sweet? (Hint: the answer is yes.) That’s because the compound that makes fennel taste anise-y, anethole, is 13 times sweeter than sugar and is not water-soluble.
  • Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed Florence fennel his favorite vegetable.

Click here to read the rest of the article and get a great recipe at EcocentricBlog.org!

This article originally appeared at EcocentricBlog.org. It is partially posted here with permission from the author.

Megan Saynisch is cook, gardener, culinary anthropologist and writer living in Brooklyn with her husband and young son. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, she is the creator of the blog Brooklynfarmhouse.com. (from Ecocentric Blog)

Photo Credit: Craig McCord