Fennel was eaten in China during the Bronze Age.
It later spread to the Mediterranean basin, where it still grows wild. It features in ancient mythology as food for the gods.
The word for fennel in Greek is marathos, because the Ancient Greeks made it into a symbol of victory when they defeated the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, the battle having taken place in a field of wild fennel.
The Romans called it foeniculum (hay), from where its present name originated, and cultivated it. They introduced it into England. The English later developed a preference for fennel seeds, which they chewed in church to freshen their breath so as not to disturb their neighbors while singing hymns.
Fennel cultivation began to develop in the south of Italy in the 16th century. It was almost unheard of in France until the arrival of Catherine de Médicis.
Now it is grown on every continent. It was taken to California during the colonial period and has taken root so vigorously there that it is considered a weed.
The bulb should be firm, clean, and white, without blemishes or cuts, and the tops a bright green color.
Small bulbs are more tender than the larger ones.
Fresh: by the bulb.
Whole seeds or powder.
As dried stalks, called fennel sticks.
"Spice of angels" is a rare and sought after product made from fennel pollen harvested in Italy and California.
Fennel can be kept for 3–4 days in a cool place covered with a damp cloth.
It becomes stringy as it ages.
Fennel has long been considered a medicinal plant. Fennel seeds are among the "four hot seeds" included in ancient pharmacopeia.
It was reputed to help gout sufferers, consumptives, and those with heart ailments, and also was renowned for being a diuretic, stimulant, appetite opener, and digestive tonic, and for having the power to reduce weight and to encourage breast-milk production (the last two properties are more wishful thinking than reality).
No scientific studies have verified these claims. But its high content in minerals, antioxidant carotenoids, vitamins, and fiber may explain these ancestral virtues.
The fruit of the fennel is inscribed in the French Pharmacopeia: the seeds and essential oil are still used in herbal medicine.
Among the dozen of varieties that exist, the most common are:
Florentine fennel: with a swollen bulb and a slightly sweet flavor.
Sweet fennel: fleshy bulb, very fine flavor.
Bitter fennel, wild fennel: bulb with green leaf stalks at the base.
Mantovano fennel: not very voluminous bulb, very sweet flavor.
Cristal, carmo, late zefa: large, slightly flat bulb.
Fennel is produced throughout the year in Italy, Spain, and the United States. The true season in France is May through November.
Its cultivation has spread through Northern Europe since the 1970s, after the development of varieties that need less light to grow.