• By Janine Pineo •
Did Pinocchio eat finocchio?
This is but one riddle I have pondered while weeding and watering.
The answer would be no, because Pinocchio wasn’t a real boy.
Finocchio, however, is a real plant, Italian for fennel.
As I decimated the grass sprouts in the raised bed last week, I examined a couple of fennel plants thriving among the parsley and red onions. The feathery foliage muted reality as it rose several feet into the air in a green mist that rippled with each puff of wind. An umbel topped one stalk, just beginning to show the yellow blush of buds.
Despite its friendly appearance, fennel is rather unneighborly. Little did I know it and dill don’t agree. The same goes for coriander. I’ve read it doesn’t like bush beans, tomatoes and kohlrabi.
I learned the hard way about dill, a regular in my herb beds for years. Fennel was the newcomer and I decided to plant the two within a couple feet of the other. I wondered why the dill seemed so scrawny and attributed it to my uneven watering. Now I know why the dill farthest away from the fennel did better.
Not that I understand why, except perhaps for fennel’s licorice scent. Mayhap it’s a repellent of some sort to certain plants. I do know that parsley doesn’t mind it, nor does salad burnet. The onions seem to be holding their own, too. Yet another riddle rears its ugly head.
Foeniculum is its own singular species in the carrot family and boasts fewer than a handful of varieties, all variations of F. vulgare, including F. vulgare var. azoricum (Florence fennel) and F. vulgare “Purpureum” (bronze fennel).
Fennel is native to Europe, especially the Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks used it in garlands for warriors because fennel was thought to bring strength, courage and long life. The Roman naturalist Pliny believed that serpents rubbed against fennel to sharpen their sight with the plant’s juice; this in turn led to the belief that fennel helped clear vision for humans. In herbal medicine today, an infusion of fennel is recommended as an eyewash or compress in treatment of conjunctivitis and other irritations.
But it doesn’t end there. Herbalists write that fennel can be used to treat gas, cramps and stomachaches. It is used in some cultures to increase breast milk. For infants, it is considered a remedy for colic and coughs. In China, a poultice from powdered fennel seeds is said to speed the healing for snakebites. It also is thought to help suppress the appetite and was eaten among the poor to ease hunger pangs; that conclusion led to its use in dieting.
Knowing all of this might make one hesitate to cook with the stuff, but don’t. Moderation is the key, especially since fennel has a robust flavor that easily could be too much if used in great quantities.
Florence fennel is grown more for its bulb and stalks than its seeds. It can often be found among the fresh vegetables at the grocery store and is sometimes incorrectly labeled anise.
To thrive in Maine, Florence fennel should get full sun and be in humus-rich ground. I directly seed it in the spring and often get decent-sized bulbs. The smaller plants are usable and offer fewer strings and fibers more likely to be had in large plants. To ensure the bigger bulbs, the seeds should be started indoors a few weeks before transplanting.
A shorter variety of Florence fennel is “Fino.” It tops out at 12 inches but still produces vigorous bulbs and fine foliage.
Fennel is considered a perennial or biennial depending on the variety. I have yet to see any of my Florence or “Fino” plants winter over, although they tend to survive a few frosts in the fall.
I have seen bronze fennel withstand the winter. This showy plant can reach 6 feet in height and become quite a monster if it’s happy where it’s planted. Its greatest claim to fame is its color, which provides a unique look in any setting.
As ornamentals, fennel plants add a new dimension to the garden. With their height, they should be in the background, offering a subtle canvas for the more dazzling blooms.
Fortunately, fennel is one of the marvelous plants that is as lovely to look at as it is to eat.
The following recipes are about as simple as a recipe can get. They come from Kitchen Gardener magazine’s Web site.
Romaine with Fennel and Feta
2 heads romaine lettuce, washed
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
3/4 cup finely chopped fennel
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
3/4 cup olive oil
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground pepper
Place the lettuce in a large bowl, using mainly hearts or torn large leaves. Sprinkle the feta cheese over the lettuce and the chopped fennel over the cheese. Whisk the vinegar, olive oil and salt until emulsified. Pour some of the dressing over the salad and toss. Refrigerate the rest of the dressing. Grind some pepper on the salad and serve.
Melted Cheese with Fennel
4 tablespoons chopped fennel
2 slices of bread
2 slices sharp cheddar cheese
Sprinkle the chopped fennel on the bread. Cover the bread with the cheese slices and sprinkle a few fennel seeds on top of the cheese. Broil until the cheese bubbles. Serve hot.
First published in the Bangor Daily News in July 2001.