Anise or aniseed is a tender annual, growing to about 60cm (2 ft) high, belonging to the same family as parsley and fennel. It is sometimes known as sweet cumin. Its leaves are feathery, rather like coriander, and its yellowish-white flowers set to pale brown, ribbed and hairy fruit seeds which taste like liquorice. The plant originates from the Orient but, like most herbs, grows both in the wild and cultivated state around the Mediterranean and especially in Egypt and the Middle East. It is cultivated in Spain, France and Russia. It can be cultivated further north, but it rarely sets seed.It was introduced to northern Europe by the Romans, and early settlers took it to North America. It was used by the Romans as a digestive – in a cake eaten after meals containing other digestive seeds such as cumin and fennel – and by the Ancient Egyptians to help digestion of their millet and barley breads. Pliny claimed it helped insomnia, and Pythagoras considered aniseed bread a great delicacy. Dr Leclerc recommended an anise herbal tea for asthmatic conditions and for menstrual problems.ANISE ESSENTIAL OILAnise oil is distilled from the seed fruits. It smells sweet and very characteristic, a little like fennel. It is colorless or a very pale yellow.The principal constituents: Anethole forms 80 – 90 per cent of the oil shared with a little aldehyde, anisic acid and methyl chavicol. In commerce it is often found falsified by essential oils of fennel or caraway. Dangers: Anise essential oil is very toxic and dangerous, a real poison for the nervous system, causing a muscular numbness followed by paralysis. Since 1959, it has been under strict controls from the Ministry of Health in France. It can be more dangerous than pure alcohol, and should never be left where children might find it. The high proportion of anethol, plus the tiny amount of methyl chavicol could be extremely toxic, so anise oil should not be used in therapy nor sold to the public.In commerce, a synthetic anethole is found, but this too is very toxic. The annual production of the authentic oil in 1987 was 40 -50 tonnes. It is said that the consumption has slowed down since the appearance of the synthetic anethol as the price of this is very low in comparison to the pure oil.USESAnise can be very successful in treating PMT and menopausal symptoms, particularly in counteracting retention of fluid. Make a tisane by boiling 10 ml (2 tsp) anise seeds in 600 ml (1 pint) water for 3 minutes.The main property of anise is digestive, as has been appreciated for so long, especially in Indian and Chinese medicine. The tisane helps indigestion due to anxiety and nervousness, and nervous palpitations, relieving breathing and promoting relaxation after a meal.Drinking the tisane – or chewing seeds very slowly, as they do in India - can prevent hiccoughs and flatulence.A few deep breaths offers a few minutes of relaxation.In cookeryAnise seeds can be cooked in breads, cakes and biscuits, in fish dishes, soups and curries, and some European dessert and fruit dishes. They flavour confectionery such as dragees in France, and a solitary seed was once the centre of the much-loved aniseed ball.Anise seeds and their oil are used mostly to flavour various alcoholic spirits and liqueurs such as the pastis of France – Pernod, Ricard, anisette – the ouzo of Greece, raki of Turkey, and the arrak of other eastern Mediterranean countries. Sometimes, particularly in the case of Pernod, the majority of the anise flavour comes from the Chinese star anise. However, that anise oil is added to these drinks as well is fairly certain; but the oil is not now allowed to be sold to the public for making their own pastis-type drinks. Often the flavour of aniseed can be given to a dish by adding the spirit or liqueur rather than the seeds, and in France there are many specialities named ‘Ricard’, for instance.The leaves of anise may be used in salads, with vegetables like carrots, and in fish soups.Other usesThe French use anise oil, under strict control, to scent pharmaceutical products such as toothpastes, mouth washes and syrups.In veterinary practice, seeds have been fed to cows as this apparently helps the production of milk (which has a faint aniseed flavour).Seeds, crushed or whole, can scent potpourris, and other household pomanders.ANISE, CHINESE OR STAR (Illicium verum – Magnoliaceae)This spice, also known as Badian anise, is the star-shaped fruit of a small evergreen tree belonging to the magnolia family. It is native to China and Vietnam, and has not been successfully cultivated elsewhere.Star ANISE ESSENTIAL OILStar anise oil is extracted from the dried fruits, and is very similar to, though rather coarser than, that distilled from anise seeds.The principal constituents: Like oil from anise seeds, star anise contains a high proportion of anethole but, despite that, is used in the drinks industry. It should not be used in therapy.USESNot surprisingly, it is much used in Chinese cookery and, together with cassia or cinnamon, cloves, fennel and Sichuan peppercorns is one of the Chinese five spices. It is particularly good in duck and pork recipes, flavoring the best Chinese spare ribs.