Sometimes things just float into place. We’ve had Indian tejpat in stock for months – I bought some when trying to put a more complex and authentic taste into home-cooked curries. A subtle bay-like leaf, it has been lending a cinnamon warmth to many a dahl and sauce in our house this autumn. And at some point I clocked that this was the stuff -Malabathrum – that Apicius uses over and over again in his cookery book of ancient Rome. I hadn’t found much reference to its use in modern western cooking but had resolved to experiment anyway.
Making rich, smokey venison stew for Boxing Day this morning, the time came. Looking through the cupboard for suitable seasoning…marjoram, juniper, clove, black pepper, parsley, bay leaf…I came face to face with cinnamon. We have German relatives staying for Christmas and it would not be unusual to find this type of goulash being laced with cinnamon in Germany but cinnamon in savoury dishes has never strongly appealed to me, except for in Eastern food. With that thought in mind, the bay leaves sailed down to lick the bubbling surface of the stew…and were joined moments later by their stripy-veined eastern cousins. The result: Truly perfect and suited to all tastes of the household.
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?