Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is unique in that is can be classified as a vegetable, herb and spice. It has a taste similar to liquorice and aniseed and belongs to the Umbellifereae family and is therefore closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander.
Fennel is made up of a white or pale green bulb which sprouts stalks with feathery leaves, yellow flowers and seeds. All these parts can be eaten in different ways making it a very versatile plant.
Common varieties of fennel
Herb fennel – grown for its leaves and seeds
Florence fennel – grown for its tender edible bulb
Fennel bulbs are a source of fibre, vitamin C and folate. The seeds are sources of fibre, potassium, calcium and iron.
Selecting and storing fennel
Fennel is available in autumn and winter. When buying bulbs pick ones that are white or pale green in colour and free of blemishes. For tender bulbs pick ones that are smaller than 12 cm in diameter. Avoid any that have signs of flowering buds as this indicates the bulb is past its best and may be quite woody. Use immediately or refrigerate in vegetable crisper and eat within a day or two.
Dried fennel seeds will keep up to six months when stored in an airtight container in a cool place.
Fennel is such a versatile plant; the only limitation is your imagination.
When using the bulb try finely slicing or grating to add to salads, pizzas or sandwiches. Serve as a side dish vegetable by boiling, steaming, microwaving or slicing and adding to a stir-fry. Add to soups, stews, vegetable stock or cover in olive oil, garlic and brown sugar and roast.
The leaves make an excellent seasoning herb and go particularly well with carrots, beans and courgette.
The seeds can be used raw or toasted to bring out the sweet spicy flavour. These seeds work well in Indian and Asian cooking and are often found in curry powders, garum masala and many Chinese spice mixes.
We've made it easy for you to experience the great taste of fennel the with our Penne with Fennel-flavoured Tomato Sauce.
How to grow your own fennel
Plant fennel in February and March and they will be ready to harvest in 100-140 days.
Fennel does not like to be transplanted so sow directly into a sunny well drained garden. Plant 1.5 cm deep, allowing 15 cm between plants. Keep soil mounded up around bulb to ensure it stays white and retains its flavour.
If growing specifically for the bulb harvest before signs of flower buds as this suggests the bulb is past its best and may become very fibrous.