Flower Heads [genus Foeniculum (fennel proper), genus Ferula (giant fennel)]

Fennel is a member of the Apiaceae family (formerly Umbelliferae), also known as the Parsley family. Originating in the Mediterranean region, fennel is now grown in many regions of the world, as an herb, a spice, a vegetable and as a medicinal plant. It is also now a common invasive weed in North America, Asia and Australia. Today, India is the top producer by a wide margin, followed by Mexico, China and Iran.   Photo of flower heads by Alvesgaspar distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

More on the Parsley Family.

Fennel Seed
Fennel Seeds [Saunf (Hindi); Mouri (Bengali); Foeniculum vulgare]

The aromatic seeds of common fennel have many culinary uses in the cuisines of most of the world. They are used to flavor liqueurs and other beverages as well as being a component of spice mixes and curries. In Italy they are much used as a flavoring ingredient in sausages. In India roasted seeds are used as an after meal breath freshner. They also have medicinal applications.

The photo shows common fennel seeds to the left. The photo specimens were typically 0.285 inch long and 0.080 inch wide (7.2 x 2.0 mm).

Luknow Fennel, shown to the right in the photo, is a special variety from northern India which has a more intensely aromatic flavor and is prefered in that region. The photo specimens were typically 0.233 inch long and 0.063 inch wide (5.9 x 1.6 mm).

Buying & Storing:   The best place to buy is in an Indian market where you can buy any quantity you need very cheaply, and can be sure its fresh. Otherwise the ethnic section of most independent markets. The tiny jars in the big chain supermarkets are expensive, and could be years old. Store tightly sealed in a glass jar in a cool place away from light and it'll last about a year. Don't buy it ground which turns quickly to sawdust - grind your own as needed.

Cooking:   In India and parts of Africa, fennel seed is dry roasted before grinding and/or incorporated in a recipe. The seeds should become aromatic and darken only just slightly. Cool before grinding.

Florence Fennel
Bulb & Fronds [Finocchio.(Italy), Anise (US Supermarkets - in error), Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum]

This variety of F. vulgare is milder than other cultivars and grown for its swollen leaf bases which form a bulb-like structure. It is most used in Italy where the bulbs are prepared and consumed in many forms. The fronds are also used in salads and recipes.

Buying & Storing:   Even most supermarkets here in North America now carry Florence Fennel. A big problem, though, is that most stores cut the stems way too short. Many recipes call for a fair amount of the leaves for additional flavor. Loosely wrapped, fennel bulbs will last about a week refrigerated.

Cooking:   Florence Fennel is often used raw, just thinly sliced, in salads and the like. For cooking it is usually sliced thicker, and cooked until tender. Don't overcook because it isn't that pleasant all mushy.

Horse Fennel
Pickled Stems [Bokhi (Armenia); Hippomarathrum siculum alt H. libanotis var. siculum]

Native to Anatolia and Caucasus, this plant is technically not a fennel, but it's commonly called "horse fennel", looks a lot like fennel and smells and tastes a lot like fennel, so I'm placing it here. Its stems are used in Armenia to make a pickle (as shown in the photo) commonly used as an appetizer. It makes a mild pickle with a pleasant and interesting fennel-like flavor. The stems are crunchy and occasionally a bit fibrous. Stems in the specimen jar, packed in Armenia, were 4-1/2 inches long and up to 0.45 inches diameter. The plant grows to about 3 feet in height. The genus name Hippomarathrum roughly translates to "makes horses crazy".

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