I have never been obsessed with fennel. That is until I tried it roasted! Since then, I excitedly open my weekly organic vegetables delivery in a hope of finding a beautifully crisp light green fennel bulb topped with bright green feathery fronds. And yesterday my prayers were answered and I was rewarded with a beautiful side dish to go along with the roast trout for a striking, yet casual, week-night dinner.
But before we get into that any further, a little fable. Fennel goes back centuries ago and has its roots in Greek mythology. Not only Prometheus brings fire to the mankind by hiding it in a hollowed-out fennel stem; fennel is also famous because of the Battle of Marathon, which Greeks fought and won against the Persian army in 490 B.C. And you know what “Marathon” means in Greek? It means “a place with fennel”.
Marathon, the area south of Athens where Greeks won the famous battle against the invading Persian army, acquired its name because of its abundant fennel fields. Following the battle, a young soldier names Pheidippides was sent from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping, but moments after proclaiming his message Nenīkēkamen (“We have won!”) to the city, he collapsed from exhaustion.
The 19th-century British poet Robert Browning employed the myth and, of course, its fennel fields in his ode to the young runner:
“So, when Persia was dust, all cried, “To Acropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!” He flung down his shield
Ran like fire once more: and the space ‘twixt the fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Like wine through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, – the bliss!”
The famous run from the place of battle in the town of Marathon to Athens is what is said to have inspired the marathon, a long-distance running event with an official distance of 42.195 kilometres. The sport of marathon was established during the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896. French philosopher and professor at the Sorbonne Michel Breal proposed the introduction of an endurance road race under the name “Marathon” which would start from the region where in 490 BC the battle of the Greeks against the Persians occurred and would end at the Pnyx of Ancient Athens, where, presumably, the messenger arrived bringing the good news of victory to the Athenians (distance of roughly 40km). In 1924 the distance of today’s marathon was set at 42km 195m – which is actually the distance between Windsor Castle and the White City Stadium in London, the route for the 1908 Olympic Marathon.
And now from Marathon to Fennel – a highly aromatic and flavourful herb often mistaken with anise due to its liquorish-like flavour. Fennel plant has three parts, each with its own unique value: the crunchy pale green root, feathery bright green fronds and seeds inside the butter-yellow blossom. Fennel seeds are not the part we see when buying fennel in the market, as they are harvested and sold separately. And it is the crisp bulb of a fennel and the delicately flavoured leaves (fronds) (which are similar in shape to those of dill) that I want to focus on.
Like most plant-based foods, you’ll find fennel to be widely beneficial not only in the kitchen, but also nutritionally. One of the most widely known benefits of fennel – used for centuries in Asian medicine – is its soothing effect on digestive tract. Essential oil made from fennel stimulates secretion of digestive and gastric juices, while reducing inflammation of the stomach and intestines, and facilitating proper absorption of nutrients from the food. Thus fennel is a go to source to provide relief for upset stomach and is very popular as an anti-flatulent (it expels excess gas from the stomach), due to the carminative properties of the aspartic acid found in it. Fennel also contains its own unique combination of phytonutrients—including the flavonoids rutin, quercitin, and various kaempferol glycosides—that give it strong antioxidant activity. Vitamin C, the most active vitamin in fennel, further enhances its antioxidant properties and helps fight inflammation.
Fennel has a mild but very distinctive liquorice flavour and fragrance, which is part of the reason why I found it hard to love this herb in the past. Until one day I have tried the simple recipe below and literally became obsessed with fennel overnight (or shall I say over dinner?!).
1 large bulb of fennel (stalks and fronds removed)*
A splash of extra virgin olive oil
A splash of balsamic vinegar
A healthy grating of pecorino cheese (sheep’s milk cheese)**
Cut the fennel bulb into slices of medium thickness and lay them in a single layer in a roasting dish (I use a glass one). Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with pecorino cheese.
Roast in a pre-heated over at 175° Celsius for around 20-25mins (depending on the thickness of your slices). The roasted fennel slices will be beautifully charred around the edges, with a golden colour in the middle. Transfer them to a plate and sprinkle with a few of the reserved fennel fronds.
The end result is a beautifully musky fennel (roasted fennel loses its anise aroma), which melts in your mouth while still having a satisfying crunch. It goes perfectly on its own or as an accompaniment to fish. Or, if you have any left overs (which never happens in our household), beautiful eaten cold as part of a salad or your lunch box.
* reserve the fronds to sprinkle on fish or use in salads
** this could potentially be replaced with some nutritional yeast for those who do not use dairy, even the milder sheep’s milk one. However, I have not tried this substitution yet myself.