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Fennel is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with culinary and medicinal uses and is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe. Florence Fennel or finocchio is a selection with a swollen bulb-like stem base that is used as a vegetable. Fennel is widely cultivated both in its native range and elsewhere for its edible strongly-flavoured leaves and seeds. Its aniseed flavour comes from anethole an aromatic compound also found in anise and star anise and its taste and aroma are similar to theirs though usually not as strong. The Florence Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Azoricum Group; syn. F. vulgare var. azoricum) is a cultivar group with inflated leaf bases which form a bulb-like structure. It is of cultivated origin and has a mild anise-like flavour but is more aromatic and sweeter. Florence Fennel plants are smaller than the wild type. Their inflated leaf bases are eaten as a vegetable both raw and cooked. There are several cultivars of Florence Fennel which is also known by several other names notably the Italian name finocchio. In North American supermarkets it is often mislabelled as "anise".
The bulb foliage and seeds of the Fennel plant are widely used in many of the culinary traditions of the world. Fennel pollen is the most potent form of Fennel but also the most expensive. Dried Fennel seed is an aromatic anise-flavoured spice brown or green in colour when fresh slowly turning a dull grey as the seed ages. For cooking green seeds are optimal. The leaves are delicately flavored and similar in shape to those of dill. The bulb is a crisp hardy root vegetable and may be sauteed stewed braised grilled or eaten raw. Fennel seeds are sometimes confused with those of anise which are very similar in taste and appearance though smaller. Fennel is also used as a flavouring in some natural toothpaste. Fennel features prominently in Mediterranean cuisine where bulbs and fronds are used both raw and cooked in side dishes salads pastas vegetable dishes such as artichoke dishes in Greece and risottos. Fennel seed is a common ingredient in Italian sausages and meatballs and northern European rye breads. Many cultures in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East use Fennel seed in their cookery. It is an essential ingredient of the Bengali/Oriya spice mixture panch phoron and in Chinese five-spice powders. In many parts of Pakistan and India roasted Fennel seeds are consumed as an after-meal digestive and breath freshener. Farming communities also chew on fresh sprigs of green Fennel seeds. Many egg fish and other dishes employ fresh or dried Fennel leaves. Florence Fennel is a key ingredient in some Italian and German salads often tossed with chicory and avocado or it can be braised and served as a warm side dish. It may be blanched or marinated or cooked in risotto.
Fennel contains anethole which can explain some of its medical effects: it or its polymers act as phytoestrogens. On account of its carminative properties Fennel is chiefly used medicinally with purgatives to allay their side effects and for this purpose forms one of the ingredients of the well-known compound Liquorice Powder. Fennel water has properties similar to those of anise and dill water: mixed with sodium bicarbonate and syrup these waters constitute the domestic 'Gripe Water' used to ease flatulence in infants; it also can be made into a syrup to treat babies with colic or painful teething. For adults fennel seeds or tea can relax the intestines and reduce bloating caused by digestive disorders. Essential oil of fennel has these properties in concentration. Fennel tea also employed as a carminative is made by pouring boiling water on a teaspoonful of bruised fennel seeds. In the Indian subcontinent Fennel seeds are also eaten raw sometimes with some sweetener as it is said to improve eyesight. Fennel tea can be used as an eye tonic applied directly like eyedrops or as a compress to reduce soreness and inflammation of the eye. Extracts of fennel seed have been shown in animal studies to have a potential use in the treatment of glaucoma. Some people use fennel as a diuretic and it may be an effective diuretic and a potential drug for treatment of hypertension. Syrup prepared from fennel juice was formerly given for chronic coughs. There are historical anecdotes that fennel is a galactogogue improving the milk supply of a breastfeeding mother. This use although not supported by direct evidence is sometimes justified by the fact that fennel is a source of phytoestrogens which promote growth of breast tissue. However normal lactation does not involve growth of breast tissue.
Long term ingestion of fennel preparations by babies is a known cause of Thelarche (the first stage of secondary breast development usually occurring at the beginning of puberty in girls).