Fennel is indigenous to the Mediterranean but is now widely grown in Europe, India, the Far East and South America. The name fennel derives from the Latin foeniculum, meaning little hay. The whole fennel plant is strongly aromatic with a scent like anise. When the Portuguese discovered Madeira in 1418 they named the place where they landed Funchal which is a derivative of funcho, the Portuguese word for fennel.
Fennel seeds are small oblong, elliptical, straight or slightly curved. Their colour varies from brown to light green, green being superior. Fennel seeds are available whole or finely ground to a powder. Their taste is similar to mild anise. Fennel is widely used in Italian, French and English cooking and is a favoured seasoning for fish. It is a common ingredient in Chinese 5 spice powder and is included in many Indian recipes. The essential oil, extracted from the seeds, is high in anethole, used in the making of anise based drinks such as pastis.
In the first century, Pliny noted that after shedding their skins, snakes ate fennel to restore their eyesight. Fennel has since been used to make a wash for eyestrain and other eye irritations. It is used as a snake bite remedy. This led our superstitious ancestors to hang fennel over their front doors to protect them against witchcraft; some even went so far as to block their keyholes with ground fennel seeds at night so as to sleep undisturbed. Fennel is a hunger suppressant and has been used as a cure for obesity. In high doses fennel can be hallucinogenic. Fennel is anti spasmodic and is used to relieve stomach cramps. The seeds are used to flavour herbal remedies and are an effective anti-flatulent. The seeds are also reported to improve the function of the liver, gall bladder and spleen.