by Sarah West
Feathery leaves and hollow stalks reminiscent of dill, succulent celery-like stems, fennel is one of those vegetables that seems to exude domesticity: a creature of the garden too well-designed, too perfectly shaped to have come out of the wild. In some ways this is true. Ancestral fennels did not have softball-sized “bulbs” at their base, nor did they likely taste so strongly of anise, but this hybrid vegetable-herb did once scatter its own seed around the Mediterranean coast, born of a family tree of fennels rich in aromatic compounds and powerful phytochemicals.
Fennel’s native range still hosts a variety of fennel species, notably among them the impressive giant fennel (Ferula communis). This towering (up to 10ft), central-trunked curiosity boasts no edible qualities. However, its thick, hollow stalk, once dried, makes for good, slow-burning tinder—a characteristic recognized by Greek mythology. In the classic story depicting how humans were given fire, Prometheus pilfers a spark from Mt. Olympus by hiding it inside a fennel stalk.
Asafetida (Ferula assafoetida), a stinking giant fennel indigenous from Iran to northern India, is unpleasant eaten fresh, though its seeds and powdered resin are widely used seasonings in those regions. The resin tastes similar to onions, and makes a good substitute for pungent onion flavor in Vedic cuisine, which prohibits consumption of alliums.
Even more mysterious is silphium, a likely extinct species of antiquity whose exact botanical taxonomy is not well understood. We know of silphium today because of its great importance in ancient Mediterranean cultures. The Egyptians and Minoans had special glyphs to represent the plant. A Greek colony called Cyrene was established in silphium’s native range (modern-day coastal Libya) and its wealth was built on the trade of Silphium; so valuable a commodity was it that a stylized image of both the plant and its seed were depicted on Cyrenean coins.
Though silphium was used culinarily, its commercial value likely hinged on its medicinal properties. All members of the parsley family (apiaceae) have small amounts of phytoestrogens, compounds created by plants that function like or interact with estrogen in animals. Though it is uncertain why a plant would go to the trouble of creating a hormone it doesn’t use, one theory suggests phytoestrogens are a protective device: by producing hormones that work like birth control in forage-eating animals, the plants prevent population explosion and, thus, overgrazing.
Silphium appears to have had particularly potent phytoestrogens in its resin, a quality that suited the hedonistic Greeks and Romans, fonder of sex than of family life, and that most convincingly explains silphium’s commercial appeal and eventual extinction. In their zealousness to exploit silphium as a contraceptive, the Romans decimated wild populations of a plant that was never successfully domesticated. Pliny the Elder describes silphium as a bygone species of giant fennel, the last specimen of which was given to Emperor Nero as a curiosity.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, ancient people enjoyed the culinary properties of a milder fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Though this fennel was short on contraceptive compounds, it was tender and juicy as celery, with an anise-scented sweetness. Gardeners cultivated this fennel, selecting less fibrous, swollen stem bases over stringy stalks, eventually resulting in what we know today as a fennel bulb.
Fennel requires little fuss in the kitchen. A cool-season vegetable, thinly sliced fennel is traditionally paired with winter-harvested citrus and a drizzle of good olive oil. On the stove or the grill, fennel’s sugars caramelize to a smooth, rich umami dressed in nothing more than a coating of oil and salt. Its stalks or seeds can be sprinkled over cooking coals to impart their fragrant oils onto fish or mild vegetables. Tucked into an autumn soup or braise, fennel melts into the broth, turning translucent and soft without disintegrating.
Many cookbooks instruct you to cut out the core, though I’ve never understood why. In grilled or braised fennel, the core is the most luscious part, silky as a roasted carrot when done. Since a fennel bulb is no more than the layered bases of the leaf stalks, the central core is what holds them together, making for neat wedges if you slice it so that each piece contains part of the core.
We have our own version of wild fennel in temperate regions—bronze fennel sold as an ornamental reseeds easily, soon populating even cracks in the garden path. Sweet garden fennel itself can get out of control, searching for its wilder self by stretching into shrub-like towers when left to seed, and setting tenacious roots if allowed to go a second season. In my garden, I tempt fate and look forward to the yellow flower umbels of fennel plants that bolted—each perched atop its stalk like the sparkling flame of a torch—adding them to fall arrangements or nibbling on their warming, anise-flavored seeds.