Fennel

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Fennel is a quadruple threat, or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a quadruple treat. The feathery leaves make a nice, dill-like addition to fish dishes. The stalks contribute the same anise flavor when fish is roasted over them, as in the French dish loup au fenouil (sea bass with fennel). The seeds first appear as yellow blossoms in the umbrellalike spray that marks this plant as a member of the Umbelliferae family (along with carrots and many other vegetables and spices)*. But it is the swollen, bulbous leaf base of the variety known as Florence fennel that has made this versatile plant the favorite vegetable of Italy.

The species name, Foeniculum, is a diminutive of the Latin for hay (faenum, foenum, or fenum). The full Linnaean appellation is F. vulgare var. azoricum. This implies that Florence fennel (itself almost certainly a Briticism reflecting the gastronomic encounter of a botanizing English epicure on the Grand Tour in Italy), a plant known to antiquity, was considered by some modern taxonomist to have originated in the mid-Atlantic on the now-Portuguese islands of the Azores.

In Italy, fennel is finocchio, which is also slang for homosexual, because it is a contraction for “dainty eye, ” fino occhio. In ancient Greek, fennel was “marathon” (μάραθον, or outside Attica, the region that includes Athens, marathron, μάραθρον). The ancient traveler Strabo believed that the town of Marathon, famous as a fifth-century B.C. battlesite and a footrace, got its name because it was rife with fennel. The name persists in all senses, geographic, botanic, and athletic, in modern Greece (μάραθον, or μάραθρον).

The combination of celerylike crunch and aniselike taste makes fennel appealing to eat raw in salads or in the classic Roman snack below. When sautéed or steamed, fennel bulbs, having lost some of their anise flavor, accompany almost any main course with verve.

*Celery, parsnips, anise, caraway, chervil, coriander, cumin, and dill.

†Strabo wrote in Greek but lived in a world increasingly dominated by Roman imperial power (born c. 63 B.C., died after A.D. 21). His name means “squinter” in Greek and Latin. In modern medical parlance, strabismus, or strabism, refers to chronic squinting. In the 1960s, Strabo Vivian Clagett III wrote a fight song for Harvard College and submitted it to the Crimson, the undergraduate daily. Never officially adopted, it is now lost.

‡The battle took place approximately twenty-five miles from Athens on the plain of Marathon in September 490 B.C. Deploying his outnumbered troops with mastery (in the account given by Herodotus), the Athenian general Miltiades routed the invading Persians led by Darius I and thereby saved Greece from “barbarian” (non-Greek-speaking) domination.

This victory allowed Athens to flourish and produce most of the greatest works of Greek literature—tragedies, comedy, lyric poetry, and philosophy—the bedrock of what became Western culture.

As to the story of the footrace, Herodotus tells us of the runner Pheidippides, but says only that he ran to Sparta pleading for help. Much later, Plutarch (c. A.D. 25–145) set down the probably invented tale of Pheidippides’s run from Marathon to Athens with news of the victory.

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