Like the other umbellifers, fennel is native to southern Europe, particularly around the Mediterranean. It has become naturalized in many other non-tropical parts of the world – Japan, Persia, India and the USA – growing mostly beside the sea. It was introduced to northern Europe by the Romans, and to the USA by early European settlers (it has become a weed in California). It is a hardy perennial, with a haze of blue-green feathery leaves, and umbels of yellow flowers followed by seeds. A relative developed in Italy is the Florence fennel or finocchio (F. v. dulce): this is an annual, and produces the plump stalk bulbs eaten raw in salads, as well as feathery leaves and seeds.The herb fennel has been known since the very earliest days, the Chinese, Indians and Egyptians all using it both as condiment and medicine. Theophrastus and Pliny preferred it to anise, and Dioscorides and Hippocrates both said it promoted the flow of breast milk (a property still appreciated today). Pliny valued it as an eye herb too. The Romans used it for its digestive properties, making the last course of a meal something like a cake which included fennel and other seeds (much as the Indians do today, offering paan, a selection of seeds including fennel seeds, at the end of a meal). The Greeks believed fennel was a slimming herb, and as it is slightly diuretic, this may well have had some basis in fact. Charlemagne ordered that fennel be one of the plants grown in his gardens, and St Hildegarde praised the plant for many medicinal properties. The first mention of fennel as an essential oil was in a book on the Art of Distillation, written by Jerome Brunschwig in 1500. In the nineteenth century doctors Cazin, Bodard and Bontemps classified fennel as a tonic, stomachic, galactagogenic, emmenagogic and carminative. More recently, Dr Leclerc and Dr Maury recorded cases of gout, rheumatism and kidney disfunction (especially stones) that had been successfully treated with fennel.FENNEL ESSENTIAL OILAlthough all parts of the plant are aromatic, it is the seeds which are crushed and distilled for the essential oil. This is usually colorless, sometimes a very pale yellow. It has a very characteristic and strong aroma reminiscent of anise, but which is softer and more camphor-like.The principal constituents: Anethol, up to 60 per cent; others are anisic aldehyde, camphene, d-fenchone, dipentene, estragol, fenone, phellandrene and pinene.Dangers: The combination of anethol and estragol (methyl-chavicol) – as in anise, see page 38 – would seem to be dangerous. I have never seen any bad reactions to fennel oil, but sensitive people should, of course, be very careful.USESFennel has long been associated with digestion, and it is an ingredient, along with its fellow umbellifer, dill, of baby gripewater. (If a baby has colic, some boiled carrot and fennel water could help.) Fennel is marvelous as a tonic for muscular energy, particularly useful for athletes and people who practice a lot of sport. It is also good for convalescence after illness. There is enormous benefit to be had from eating the herb and its vegetable relative as often as possible and from drinking fennel tisanes.For a fennel tisane, put 7.5 ml (1/2tbsp) crushed seeds in a teapot, and pour on 600 ml (1 pint) boiling water. Let it stand for 7 minutes before straining and drinking. Sweeten with honey if you like (good for athletes) and drink as a tonic in the morning or during the day.For a tonic bath, add 10 drops of the essence to the hot water while it is running, then lie in it and relax for 10 minutes. (This is also good for urinary problems, such as cystitis.) Afterwards, massage legs, arms, torso, back of the neck and feet with a body oil consisting of 50 ml (2 fl oz) soya oil, 4 drops wheatgerm oil and 15 drops fennel oil.An infusion of fennel seeds can be cleansing and gently toning for the skin.Fennel is also very helpful for eye inflammations, puffiness and conjunctivitis. Boil 15 ml (1 tbsp) crushed fennel seeds in 600 ml (1 pint) water for a few minutes. Leave to infuse and cool then strain. Use in an eye bath and clean both eyes several times. If you do this several times a day, the problem should disappear fairly rapidly. Consult your doctor or ophthalmologist if symptoms persist.In cookeryFennel is the herb most associated with fish: the feathery leaves are used in fish sauces, soups and salads; the dried stalks are often placed under a whole fish to be grilled on the barbecue. The leaves can be used to flavor herbal oils and vinegars, and make a wonderful white sauce for asparagus along with parsley. The seeds flavor Italian salami and are one of the Chinese five spices. They are often used in curries, baked on breads, and can flavor a pounded sea salt as does lovage. The seeds go particularly well with cucumbers, and can also be mixed with cheese and sprinkled over steamed vegetables. The stalks can be cooked as celery, and the roots were once candied.The plant and the oil are used in some alcoholic drinks, mainly of the aniseed or pastis variety (which usually use star anise). A French herb liqueur, La Tintaine, is sold in a bottle with a fennel stem.The bulb fennel possesses many of the properties of the herbal plant, and can be eaten raw in a salad or cooked. To eat raw, trim (keeping the feathery leaves for use as a herb), and cut into slices. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, first-pressing olive oil and some salt and pepper to taste. This is a good side salad, for fish especially.BRAISED FENNELServes 4This can be eaten as a main dish, or as an accompaniment to game, veal or chicken.4 large fennel bulbsSalt and freshly ground pepper1 garlic clove, peeled and halvedAbout 85 ml (3 fl oz) first-pressing olive oil100 g (4 oz) Gruyere cheese, gratedTrim the bulbs well, cut them in half, and boil them in salted water for 30 minutes. Drain well. Rub a dish with the cut clove of garlic, and sprinkle with some of the olive oil. Place the half bulbs in the dish and sprinkle with some more olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Cover with greaseproof paper and cook in the oven preheated to 180 – 200°C (350 – 400 F) Gas 4 – 6 until brown – about 35 minutes.