Do you use fennel seed? How often? I think I must use it somehow most weeks. Using, and then growing fennel seed is where my own curiosity about food ingredients first really took off.
It’s hard to be precise about how I came to be such a fennel seed junkie. I think it was the realisation of what an important role it played in my enjoyment of both Italian and Indian food. I’d been going back for more and more of a sublime creation at Glasgow’s fabulous Wee Curry Shop – chicken simmered in ginger with okra. This lovely dish of chicken melting from the bone in an aromatic, amber liquor was certainly gingery but was also beaded with a powerfully flavoured seed, which I’d initialy taken to be cumin. Around the same time we’d developed a mid-week, easy supper at home – a sauce for fusilli pasta. It’s preparation is so Philistine, it’s embarassing to describe but I’ll still happily put away a large plate full. We’d peel open english pork sausages (good ones, mind) and disintegrate them into a frying pan with a big glug of olive oil, garlic and diced onion. Then season and apply a puff of smoked paprika and….a generous splutter of fennel seed…and then add tomato puree to make it saucy. The result: A hot, red, peppery, smokey sausage ragu crowned with that flavour that so well complements Italian pork dishes.
How would you describe that flavour? It’s one of those flavours that is often confused with others; I’ve overheard friends notice aniseed in Italian charcuterie and not set them straight, just because they aren’t far wrong in terms of flavour. Its also difficult to describe the flavour without likening it to others – liquorice, aniseed….cumin? Cumin. There’s a continuum in seeds: Caraway, cumin, fennel…all related flavours, triggering various sensory connections for me but all somehow slightly edgy. Cumin: Spicy, sweaty…a haggle turning ugly in the Khan el-Khalili? Caraway: Wistful, bohemian…a mysterious encounter in a September field? Fennel…I can’t quite place this one but my head’s half way from Tuscany to Glasgow. What about you?
Food ingredients are fascinating. Here’s an enigma: What was silphium and does it still exist? In the culinary world, silphium is a mystery worthy of Indiana Jones.
It was traded across the known world and commanded high prices. Prized in ancient cooking it had a status perhaps even higher than luxury foodstuffs of today like saffron and vanilla. But the plant that gave it up – probably a type of giant fennel – was only known in Cyrene (now part of Libya) and was never successfully domesticated.
Although guarded jealously, in the end supply was exhausted and the species is generally thought to have been extinct from some time in the first century. Trade switched to an inferior alternative from the east, asafoetida – still commonly used in India. (Both products were a dried gum tapped from the root)
But could it be that the silphium plant survives today? Some people would like to think that it does. Although the Roman emperor Nero was reportedly presented with the last known stem, there are tantalizing suggestions in letters written much later of cuttings being sent to friends as gifts. Wouldn’t it be fun to go searching for it? People have. Some think that growth recovered but its production and use simply never returned. A plant still rampant in certain valleys in Libya (cachrys ferulacea) might just be it. Or it might not.
But if this stuff was that great, surely we’d know it if we found it? Perhaps, but there are many ancient food ingredients that have waned from popular taste or at least narrowed in their geography. Look at garum, for example, or verjus, or common wild herbs like meadowsweet and mallow.
All food ingredients have history and culture that can amaze as much as their flavour and artful uses. The most familiar ingredients to some may be less so to others or familiar in different forms and combinations. There is an almost limitless range of food ingredients around the world. What ingredients or delightful combinations have you “discovered” recently? What gets used unusually frequently in your kitchen? What do you grow or make yourself because you can’t buy it in the shops?
As I get interested in particular ingredients, I increasingly want to research their history and explore their uses.