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The Allure of Anise

[Editor’s Note: This feature did not publish in March; the writer was taking a late winter break.]

The tea I was enjoying had a tantalizingly sweet taste reminiscent of licorice. I had recently purchased a box of Royal Anise tea imported from Egypt and was sampling the soothing drink for the first time. The anise flavor was extracted from an ancient aromatic plant, probably native to Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. Curious about my find, I asked the Egyptian counterman at the Astor Mediterranean (1829 Col. Rd., NW) eatery in Adams Morgan that is a favorite haunt of mine, about the spice. It was a “pharmaceutical,” he responded, very pleasing to the stomach. Anise tea, I later learned, has been given for ages to babies with colic.

The flavor of anise was inseparable from its reputed curative powers. It was said to conquer flatulence, calm the stomach, and sweeten the breath. The spice acquired the nickname, solamen instestinorum, comforter of bowels.

The aromatic hot weather plant with its feathery leaves and clusters of yellowish flowers has the distinctive features of the carrot family, which includes coriander, cumin, parsley, and fennel among others. Its scent and flavor are created by anethole, the fragrant oil contained in its seeds or fruits. The pale yellow oil gives off the telltale smell of licorice. Anise, in fact, provides the taste in licorice candy (licorice is another plant altogether).

Its sweetness, 13 times that of sugar according to scientist Harold McGee, derives from anethole. The oil, which makes anise so seductive to us, protects the plant by repelling insects.

In the days of the Pharaohs, Egyptians believed that anise healed the body. Medical manuals prescribed it for stomach ills and recommended that the herb’s seeds be chewed for toothaches. A drink of figs, honey, and anise, one text advised, “refreshes” the heart.

Egypt supplied anise to ancient Rome, where it was a favorite spice. “Be it green or dried it is wanted for all conserves and flavorings,” the Roman naturalist Pliny wrote. Roman cooks employed anise to make dishes both delectable and healthy. A banquet cake served in a wrapping of bay leaves was made fragrant with anise. Eaten at the end of a long night of feasting, the dessert was designed to help celebrants digest their dinner and to sweeten their breath.

The Romans also exploited the sweet flavor of the seeds in other confections. General Quintus Fabius Cunctator, according to historian Waverly Root, rewarded the plebes with hard anise candy after their military victories.

In Greece, Pythagoras extolled the flavor of bread seasoned with anise. Baked goods redolent of the spice are still widely consumed. The Scandinavians and Germans make anise bread. The Italians love anise biscotti, cookies that were originally served as festive sweets at weddings.

During the Middle Ages, anise arrived in Europe from the East just as sugar was making inroads in the kitchen. Tangy candies or confits were developed by coating aromatic seeds (fennel, coriander, aniseed) with hard sugar. The practice, historian Tim Richardson suggests, probably started with Arab apothecaries.

At fancy gatherings, guests were offered a choice of pastilles served on gold or silver dishes with the main banquet course or after the meal. Just as aromatic cake was for the Romans, the confits were meant as digestifs and breath sweeteners.

European herbalists like the 16th century English commentator John Gerard gave their stamp of approval to anise: “The seed wasteth and consumeth winde, and is good against belchings and upbraidings of the stomacke, allayeth gripings of the belly, provoketh urine gently . . . and stirreth up bodily lust.”

The confits are the ancestors of our own anise sweets. The classic Anis de Flavigny hard candies, pea-sized treats with a tiny green anise seed inside, were first produced by French Benedictine monks in 1591. In their abbey in the Burgundy village of Flavigny, the monks gathered heaps of anise seeds for their confections. More than 2,000 years ago, Roman soldiers took the herb to Gaul.

When the monasteries were dissolved after the French Revolution, several businesses took their place turning out pastilles. One family-owned company, now in its third generation, is currently making the candies by following the original recipe and techniques. Tumbling together in copper kettles for 15 days, anise seeds are coated with successive layers of sugar syrup. Les Anis de Flavigny are sold today in such flavors as black currant, orange blossom, rose, and violet.

Anise-flavored alcoholic drinks, traditional in the Middle East, also took advantage of the spice’s invigorating fragrance. Doubly rewarding, they were at once intoxicating and relaxing for the stomach. Drinking the herbal liqueurs is restorative. “They are the Middle Eastern equivalent of chicken soup — a cure for all ailments,” Israeli journalist Amit Yariv wrote.

Arak, the oldest of these refreshments, was developed by the Arabs, who pioneered distilling (alcohol comes from an Arabic word). The innovators, most probably Christians, produced the liquor from fermented grapes. Anise seeds steeped in the alcohol provide the distinctive flavor and aroma.

The drink’s name is an allusion to the distilling process. Arak means sweat or perspiration in Arabic. It’s an apt image for the droplets, which collect in the spout of the still before dripping out.

Popular among Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and other Middle Easterners, arak was perfected by the Lebanese. It continues to be made in the time-honored way, in copper stills, in mountainous Christian villages during the grape harvest. The artisanal drink is a fixture of the area’s Sunday lunch. It is sipped with the mezze, the assortment of olives, feta cheese, eggplant dips, and other starters that stimulate the appetite. “There are drinks to get you drunk, and there are drinks to be savored with food, distiller George Haiby told the New York Times’ Neil Macfarquahar. “Arak from the village is like the sons of the village: pure. If you use good grapes, if you keep the entire process clean, if you distill the mash well, if you use good aniseed, everyone can make good arak.”

In Turkey, people are enthusiastic about raki, the country’s equivalent of arak. Taverns and wine shops, Turkish writer Evilya Celebi reported in 1630, had sprung up in Istanbul to quench the thirst for the intoxicant. At least 100 workshops were processing it. The passion for raki today has fueled a booming business in Turkey growing aniseed.

Like other anise-based drinks, “lions milk,” as the Turks call raki, turns a milky-white when diluted in a glass of water. This happens because its aromatic oils dissolve in alcohol but not in water.

Milky-white anise drinks abound in the Mediterranean world. Ouzo in Greece and pastis in southern France each has its devotees (pastis means “mixed” or “confused” in the Provençal dialect). In Italy, sambuca, a similar liquor, has an Arabic imprint. After they conquered Sicily in the 11th century, the Islamic colonists introduced an anise-flavored water known as zammu. Vendors offered customers glasses of cold water to which they added a shot of anise. Talking to Sicilian food writer Mary Ann Simeti, a local reminisced about the dying trade: “The sellers would walk around with clay pots like amphoras tied over their shoulders, or hanging from a yoke. They sold anise water . . . drinking water spiked with anise in clay pots to keep it cool.” Zammu evolved into the alcoholic liqueur sambuca.

The anise refreshments epitomize the herb’s sensual appeal. They “evoke an idyllic drowsiness,” writer Regina Nadelson observes. Many centuries ago, the Romans credited anise with aphrodisiac powers. The 15th century English king, Edward IV, had a similar faith. He demanded that his sheets be perfumed with the aromatic. One more tribute to the versatile plant.


Anise Anyone?

Café Divan (1834 Wisc. Ave., NW; tel., (202) 338-1747), an enjoyable Turkish dining room, sells raki, the country’s anise liqueur. Try it with grape leaves, borek (a feta-filled pastry), fried eggplant, or any of the restaurant’s many appetizers.

Jolt ’N Bolt, 1918 18th St., NW; tel., (202) 232-0077), the Adams Morgan coffee shop, offers anise-flavored biscotti that you can munch on with your latte.