Prometheus returned the knowledge of fire to humans by carrying a hot coal in a giant fennel stalk. When Zeus discovered his ban overturned, he retaliated by sending Pandora, the first woman to live among men, and her box of troubles to balance the score. The non-so-latent misogyny of the myth aside, that empire and its gods toppled, as empires do. Those ever capricious Greek gods would have their jokes on mankind. Greek humans have lent their hand to the story of fennel too. The Athenian, Pheidippides, carried a stalk of fennel on his two day race to bring Sparta news of the Persian defeat at Marathon. That battle site is reputed to have been a field of fennel. The Greeks have a word for everything, though in the case of fennel, the language prize must go to the Italians who dubbed it “finocchio”.
Feathery and delicate as the fronds that crown the fennel bulb are, its flavor is anything but laid back. It is akin to anise, distinctive and slightly sweet with a crisp crunch when eaten raw. It is a perennial herb usually cultivated as an annual. Bulb, stalk, fronds and seeds are edible, the bulb and stalk as a savory vegetable and the aromatic greens and seeds as a seasoning. Native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, fennel is now naturalized across northern Europe, Australia, North America and China. It plays a significant role in the cuisines of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan. The seeds are a critical element in Italian sausage, in pickling and in breads. The seeds have been used to freshen breath and been candied as digestives.
Pliny the Elder in the 1st C AD, noted that snakes rubbed against the fennel plant to improve their eyesight after shedding their skin. He described twenty-two ailments for which he prescribed fennel treatments. Other Roman citizens made a tonic for cloudy eyes from fennel root. Fennel syrup has long been used to sooth chronic coughs and fennel tea to ease digestive disorders. A 15th C physician claimed, “The juice of fenell put into a mans eares, killeth the wormes therein.” During the Middle Ages, fennel was hung in open doorways to ward off evil. Today, in powdered form, it is used to ward off fleas in kennels and stables.
Fennel is a strong antioxidant, contains significant anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. It provides vitamin C, fiber and potassium. Better than the healthy reasons to make fennel party to your table, it is a most refreshing taste, especially on muggy days. Our offering today is a variation on a traditional Sicilian dish: Sicilian Fennel, Red Onion and Orange Salad.