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Food in the 'Hood

The Truth about Finocchio: The Fragrant Fennel

 

Fennel was not on our dining table growing up. I knew vaguely of fennel seeds but nothing of the aromatic plant. You probably had to be of Greek or Italian extraction, not someone of Jewish-Yankee background, to be conversant with fennel. Much later, after moving to Washington, I noticed that fennel began appearing on the menus of sophisticated kitchens. I was perplexed by the vegetable’s unusual appearance and had little idea of how to use what food writer Mark Bittman dubbed “licorice celery.”

I began my fennel education at Viareggio’s, the now-shuttered Italian delicatessen, which occupied the space that had long housed Larimer’s, the venerable Connecticut Avenue grocery. I remember my reaction when proprietor Chris Niosi, whose father was Sicilian, offered me a slice of house salami. The wonderfully sweet fragrance of the fennel seeds in the meat balanced the strong spiciness of the pork. Chris introduced me to his fennel wares. The store sold fennel seeds and fennel honey as well as herb-laced snacks. Birellis, fennel bread sticks, were named for their resemblance to the pins used in an Italian game similar to bowling. Tarallis, cousin to birellis, were circular bread sticks redolent of fennel. On a back shelf, Chris showed me a can of fennel based sauce for preparing the classic Sicilian dish, pasta con le sarde. Imported from the island, it was a blend of raisins, pine nuts, olive oil, tomato sauce, sardines, and “young fennel” greens.

Fennel, I was to learn, was more than a fragrant herb or vegetable. Through the ages, it has been invested with awesome curative and invigorating power. Its aroma and flavor may have been so alluring that people could not resist imagining that the plant had an even greater potency.

Native to the Mediterranean, fennel, like Queen Ann’s lace, the wild carrot, grew wild in meadows and along country roads. Feathery green fronds spilled out from its stalks. A cluster of brilliant yellow flowers, which yield its pleasing seeds, formed a parasol, or umbel, over the plant. Fennel shares this floral umbrella with other members of the Umbelliferae family, like coriander, dill, and anise.

Another variety, often called Florence fennel, with a peculiarly swollen bulb at its base, was bred by Italian gardeners. This “pregnant celery,” to use writer Maggie Stuckey’s image, is the vegetable we commonly encounter.

Fennel is attractive because so much of the plant is appetizing. Leaves, stems, seeds, bulbs, even pollen, are tasty and have a sweet anise or licorice flavor. Fennel’s glory is its versatility. Sautéing slices from the bulb in olive oil makes a mildly sweet and refreshing vegetable. Salted or dipped into olive oil, fennel becomes what Italians call a pinzimonio, which is served as a relish. The seventeenth century Italian commentator, Giacomo Castelvetro, was enthusiastic about the condiment. “We preserve quantities of fresh fennel in good white vinegar and eat in summer and in winter when offering to drinks to friends between meals. We also serve this pickle with fruit on special occasions, when fresh fennel is not to be had.” Fennel slices make a fine pairing with oranges. The plant’s fronds can also enliven soups and salads.

This aromatic is of ancient lineage. It was used for marinating olives in Greece. Romans prized the Mediterranean native. Young shoots were enjoyed as vegetables, and its seeds were sprinkled on cakes and breads. Stalks and shoots were marinated in brine and vinegar. The plant, whose Latin was foeniculum, or “fresh hay” (possibly because of its fragrance), was Indispensable, the Roman naturalist Pliny said, for “seasoning a great many dishes.”

To the Greeks and Romans, fennel also had a special mystique. In Greece, the plant was associated with strength and valor. Since the Greek and Persian armies clashed in 495 B.C. on the fields of Marathon, which were covered with fennel, the herb was supposedly named marathron after the battle site. In another version, marathron is said to derive not from the battle but from the word maraino, to grow thin. Fennel not only made you lean and fit, the Greeks supposed, it also soothed your stomach. Socrates recommended eating a stalk of fennel to help with stomach upset. Centuries later, mothers prepared gripe water, a sort of honeyed tea made with fennel and other herbs, to relieve indigestion. Indians value fennel seeds as a digestif and mouth freshener. Diners at Indian restaurants often find a tray of the seeds at the dining room entrance.

Pliny placed great stock in fennel as a remedy for ailments of the eyes. It sharpened eyesight and prevented blindness, he claimed. Even animals could sense the plant’s vital force. Pliny observed that snakes rubbed against fennel after shedding their skins. They were trying, he surmised, to regain their sight by getting fennel “juice” in their eyes.

In medieval times, fennel retained its aura of potency. People hung the leaves over doorways to scare away witches and evil spirits. Cows’ udders were smeared with fennel paste for a similar end. Later, health proselytizers in Europe touted the herb. “Both the seeds, roots, and leaves of our Garden Fennel are much used in drinks and broths for those that are grown fat,” the seventeenth century English naturalist William Cole proclaimed. Fennel, he added, helped “to abate their unwieldiness and cause them to grow more gaunt and lank.” In his 1841 poem, “The Goblet of Life,” William Wordsworth paid homage to the ancient folklore about the health giving herb:

“Above the lowly plants it towers,
The fennel, with its yellow flowers,
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers,
Lost vision to restore.

“It gave new strength, and fearless mood;
And gladiators, fierce and rude,
Mingled it in their daily food;
And he who battled and subdued,
A wreath of fennel wore.”

To some writers, fennel’s flavor was inseparable from its restorative value. John Evelyn, the 17th century English gastronomer, encouraged his readers to eat fennel peeled like celery. The herb, he said, also “expels wind, sharpens the sight, and recreates the brain.”

The Italian name for the plant, finocchio, evoked its vision-improving qualities; finocchio means “fine eye.” Curiously, the word also came to suggest flattery or dissembling. Perhaps it acquired this connotation because its delicious flavor and aroma could disguise something unsavory. Writing in the early seventeenth century, Italian food writer Castelvetro explained how Italian wine merchants used fennel to persuade customers to purchase a less than satisfactory bottle: “Our villainous Venetian wine-sellers solicitously offer innocent or single-minded customers a piece of nice fennel to eat with their wine … insisting that otherwise they might do themselves harm by drinking wine on an empty stomach.” Fennel also developed into a slang word for homosexual in Italy. Trading on the term, a nightclub in San Francisco’s North Beach district that specialized in female impersonator acts called itself “Finocchios.”

In Shakespearean England, fennel acquired a similar connotation. To a theatre audience, fennel implied falsity or flattery. In The Case is Altered, a play of Ben Johnson’s, Christopher has this exchange with the Count:

Christopher – “No, my good lord.”
Count – “Your good lord! Oh! how this smells of fennel!”

Fennel came to America without the darker associations it possessed in Europe. Thomas Appleton, an American consul in Naples, Italy, sent Thomas Jefferson some fennel seeds in 1834. Appleton wrote Jefferson, who planted the seeds in his Monticello garden, a glowing letter about the vegetable. “[T]he fennel is, beyond every other vegetable, delicious. It greatly resembles in appearance the largest size celery, perfectly white, and there is no vegetable equals it in flavor.” Fennel, he added, was enjoyed as a dessert, “crude, and with, or without, dry salt.”

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Fennel Finds

A.M. Wine Shoppe (2122 18th St., NW; 202-2248). The store sells finnochiona, a salami seeded with fennel, in its charcuterie department.

Jyoti (2433 18th St., NW; 202-518-5892). The Adams-Morgan Indian restaurant makes pakoras and bhajias, vegetarian snacks spiced with fennel. Try a few fennel seeds from the bowl on your way out to soothe your stomach.

Pizzeria Paradiso (2003 P St., NW; 202-223-1245). The Dupont Circle pizza restaurant uses sausage that has been flavored with fennel.

Sette Osteria (1666 Conn. Ave., NW; 202-483-3070). The menu offers a salad featuring arugula with shaved fennel.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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