The liquorice flavoured fennel

In a previous blog we wrote about addiction to liquorice flavour. There might be some other way of satisfying such a taste. I am thinking of fennel, a plant that has a flavour strikingly similar to liquorice and the related anise flavour, so much so that fennel is often mistakenly referred to as anise in the marketplace.

Fennel is a herb

The magic fennel (Photo: Klesick family farm)

The liquorice-flavoured fennel (Photo: Klesick family farm)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a highly aromatic and flavourful perennial herb with culinary and medicinal uses. It is closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. Fennel is indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, but has become widely naturalised along roadsides, in pastures, and in other open sites in many regions, including northern Europe, the United States, southern Canada and in much of Asia and Australia.

Fennel was cultivated by the ancient Romans for its aromatic fruits and succulent, edible shoots. In mediaeval times, fennel was employed, together with St. John’s Wort and other herbs, as a preventative of witchcraft and other evil influences, being hung over doors on Midsummer’s Eve to warn off evil spirits. The Greek name for fennel is marathon which literally means a plain with fennels and was the place of the famous battle of Marathon and the subsequent sports event with the same name.

The culinary traditions of fennel use

Florence fennel or finocchio is a selection with a swollen, bulb-like stem base. The bulb and foliage are used as a vegetable, while the seeds are widely used as a spice in many culinary traditions of the world. The fennel bulb is a key ingredient in some Italian and German salads, often tossed with chicory and avocado, or it can be braised and served as a warm side dish. It may be blanched or marinated, or cooked in risotto. Many egg, fish, and other dishes employ fresh or dried fennel leaves.

The fennel seeds are one of the most important spices in Kashmiri Pandit and Gujarati cooking. It is an essential ingredient of the spice mixture panch phoron and in Chinese five-spice powders. In many parts of India and Pakistan, roasted fennel seeds are consumed as an after-meal digestive and breath freshener. They are also used in confectionary applications and in oral hygiene products.

Florence fennel is one of the three main herbs used in the preparation of absinthe, an alcoholic mixture which originated as a medicinal elixir in Switzerland and became, by the late 19th century, a popular alcoholic drink in France and other countries. It is also used in the alcoholic drink ouzo that is widely consumed in Greece and Cyprus. Since the fennel extract is poorly soluble in water it produces the opaque effect seen when these spirits are diluted with water.

Nutritional properties of fennel

Fennel is an excellent source of vitamin C. It is also a very good source of dietary fibre, potassium, manganese, folate, and molybdenum. In addition, fennel is a good source of niacin as well as the minerals phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper.

Like many of its fellow spices, fennel contains its own unique combination of phytonutrients—including the flavonoids rutin, quercitin, and various kaempferol glycosides—that give it strong antioxidant activity.

The liquorice flavour in fennel comes from anethole, the primary component of its volatile oil. It is an aromatic compound also found in anise and several other plants. It is distinctly sweet, being 13 times sweeter than sugar. It is perceived as being pleasant to the taste even at higher concentrations. Its name is derived from the latin name of dill – Anethum graveolens – in which anethole is only a minor flavour component.

The presence of anethole in fennel can explain some of its medical effects. It is phytoestrogen and thus extracts of fennel has been used in the past as a safe and effective herbal drug for dysmenorrhea. It has also been widely used both in human and in veterinary medicine to treat flatulence by either preventing the formation of intestinal gas or encouraging its expulsion. Infants with colic has been treated with fennel extracts. Many other uses have been recommended including treatment for upper respiratory tract infections, coughs, bronchitis, cholera, backache, bedwetting, and visual problems. However, evidence is lacking for the effectiveness in relation to several of its proposed uses.

Promising findings from animal studies show that anethole in fennel can reduce inflammation and help prevent the occurrence of cancer. A biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects has been proposed involving the shutting down of a system called tumor necrosis factor mediated signaling. By shutting down this signaling process, the anethole in fennel prevents activation of a potentially strong gene-altering and inflammation-triggering molecule called NF-kappaB.

Is it safe?

Maybe cut back a little on absinthe consumption (Photo: In Transit)

Maybe cut back a little on absinthe consumption (Photo: In Transit)

Although there has been some issues raised, normal fennel consumption is considered to be safe. However, for the most part, there isn’t enough evidence to know whether it is safe for adults or children when used in medicinal amounts.

Some people can have allergic skin reactions to fennel. People who are allergic to plants such as celery, carrot, and mugwort are more likely to also be allergic to fennel. Fennel can also make skin extra sensitive to sunlight and make it easier to get a sunburn.

There might be some interaction between fennel consumption and some medications. Fennel might decrease absorption of ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic. Consuming fennel along with tamoxifen might decrease the effectiveness of tamoxifen to prevent the growth of certain oestrogen-sensitive cancers.

But in the main it is pretty safe to consume normal amounts of fennel.


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