In colonial America householders hung fennel in the windows in spring to perfume long confined spaces. Its seeds made medicine palatable and gave a licorice note to confections. Persons chewed fennel seed to sweeten breath. Distillers added it to the pharmaceuticals that flavored gin. Fennel also functioned as an herb—its hair-like foliage being incorporated into white sauces to dress mackerel and other oily fish. Oil of fennel offended bugs, so anointed things that had to be preserved from infestation. The bulbous stalk of dwarf fennel (finochio, or ‘Florence fennel’) became popular only late in the 19th century as a vegetable, being treated as though it were an aromatic form of celery, gracing soups, stews, and salads. Finochio was grown by Jefferson, and mentioned by Bernard M’Mahon, the pioneer American literary horticulturist, in 1806. But it remained decided a rare cultivar until the 1890s available only in large city markets with populations of French and Italian residents. Much of the marketed seed in 19th-century American came from Germany.
A perennial plant, it could be grown either from seed or from offsets. Aromatic sweet fennel, grown for seed, tended to be spaced a foot apart. Dwarf (bulbous) fennel was spaced 18 inches. Grown either in fall or spring, it thrived in well-watered, well manured garden soil. According to William Cobbett, a two yard square could supply a family with all the fennel they needed. Because of its employments as an ingredient of folk pharmacy, sweet fennel had an enduring place in the herb garden.
1. Bernard M’Mahon, The American Gardener’s Calendar (Philadelphia: Graves, 1806), p. 200.
Sweet Fennel History
tall to six feet. Cultivated for seeds and for its herbaceous fine foliage. An old garden variety.
Dark. Grcen-leaved History
possessed of an intenser flavor in its leaves than sweet fennel. Preferred by chefs for fish sauces.
Dwarf, or finochio History
This variety is characterized by a tendency in the stalk to swell to a considerable thickness. This thickened part is blanched by earthing up, and is then very tender. Owing to the peculiar nature of this variety . . . it is more tender than the common fennel, and often perishes in the course of the winter. Misled by this circumstance, several horticultural writers describe it as an annual species, under the appellation'A. segetum.
Cooking Sweet Fennel (The Vegetable Kingdom 1843) History
The stalks are the edible part. In cooking it should be half an hour in water, then parboiled and drained and then cooked in a stew pan in rich gravy till tender. L. D. Chapen, The Vegetable Kingdom (New York: Jerome Lott, 1843), p. 191.
Stewed Fennel (Harder’s Practical American Cookery 1885) History
Wash the Fennel in plenty of cold water and trim off" the hard leaves. Parboil them for five minutes, then immerse them in cold water, and trim them evenly. Then cook them the same as celery. Pour over them some Butter, Allemande or Espagnole sauce. Jules Arthur Harder, The Physiology of Taste; or, Harder’s Practical American Cookery (San Francisco, 1885), p. 164.
Fennel flavoring for Fish (The American Gardener 1821) History
The leaves of fennel . . . are chopped up fine to put in melted butter eaten with fish; they are boiled with fish to give the fish a flavour, and, they are tied round mackarel, particularly, when these are broiled. The French, who excel in the cooking of fish, always do this. The leaves, thus broiled, become crisp; and, they are then of a very fine flavour. In winter, the seed, bruised, gives fish the same flavour as the leaves do in summer; and, to my taste, butter, seasoned with Fennel, is better than any of the fish sauces, bought at the shops. William Cobbett, The American Gardener (London: C. Clement, 1821). Entry 221.
Cream Of Fennel (The Magazine of Domestic Economy 1836) History
Into two gallons of cordial gin infuse a dozen heads of fennel seeds, and two pounds of powdered brown sugar-caudy ; stop it close, shaking it every day for a week to dissolve the sugar-candy. Let it stand six months, then filter it through filtering-paper, and bottle it for use.