Fennel  by Marcia Milner-Brage
Fennel , a photo by Marcia Milner-Brage on Flickr.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) grows wild in the Mediteranean region. The wild fennel is called "bitter fennel" and cultivated fennel, also known as "sweet fennel" originated in the island of Malta, and discovered by crusaders who brought it to Europe about 1000 years ago. Growing up in the Galilee in Israel, we would find wild fennel in the winter and chew on them for their sweet aroma, or bring them home to our mother who added the feathery leaves to lentil stews and soups, or fresh into the salad just like you would with dill or parsley. Fennel seeds are common as breath-fresheners in India. The seeds also find their way into countless curries and garam masala recipes, as well as chai blends, where their sweetness balances the astringency of Indian black tea.

Fennel culinary uses far outnumber it's applications in perfumery. Its sweet, warm, fresh licorice-like aroma finds many uses in flavouring preparations from liquros and aperitifs, to syrups, cough drops and lozenges, as well as to season pickles and marinade fish and seafood. The last use, as well as its medicinal applications, has a scientific reasons behind it: the main chemical compound in fennel seed, anethole, is a powerful masking agent! You can find fennel seeds in Moroccan savoury pretzels and semoline cookies and desserts alike - not to mention Italian biscotti and how well it goes with orange zest. Fennel is more versatile that might seem at first to the untrained cook.

The fresh bulbs have many wonderful recipes in the Mediterranean region and you will find it in the Italian and Moroccan cuisines, where it's praised and prepared with reverence and consumed with much delight. The crisp bulbs are especially favoured, used fresh in salads, or roasted, grilled or caramelized for appetizers and antipasti.

Green Fresh Fennel Seeds

In contrast to this versatility - fennel rarely takes the centre stage in perfumery. Synthetic anethole is widely used to mask unpleasant odours in various industrial products, and that's about where its role ends. Synthetic anethole is preferred, because it is much cheaper to produce than to distill it from seeds of anise, fennel or star anise fruit. However, synthetic anethole also contains a toxic chemical called cis-anethole (which is not present in the natural oils of the above plants). You'd be hard-pressed to find any perfume of significance containing fennel as a note commercially. Fennel is a top note, so no matter how much someone might like it, it won't take centre stage for too long, even if it was allowed to. And then there is the other question - is there really any difference between fennel and other licorice-smelling notes?

Fennel by kevin dooley
Fennel, a photo by kevin dooley on Flickr.
The answer is, there is - though quite subtle. While aniseed has a very sweet-warm personality, and star anise an even cleaner, almost woody version of licorice - fennel has a bit of a fizzy green feel to it. You'd have to look at it with a magnifying glass (olfactorily speaking, of course) to find this out - but eventually you will be able to discriminate them in a blind test. In fact, it was one of the times I noticed that perhaps my nose is can differentiate such fine differences: I was in an aromatherapy store with a friend, and he spontaneously decided to blind-test me. I've ID'd it as fennel right away.

And why all this fennel talk, you might be wondering? It is seasonal - the bulbs are at the farmers' market, to my delight; and a surprise of green fennel seeds in Sunset Beach (which I used in a salad recipe with Asian pears). But my perfumery point of view on this actually comes from a surprising angle - my experiments with osmanthus absolute, furthering my acquaintance with this rare absolute brought me fennel seed again. I remembered fondly the Chartreuse Eau de Vie tisane and just had to try blending osmanthus with chamomile and fennel. Incidentally, I've also come across since with the liquor that inspired it (pricey, but worth it). It's so complex and delicious, reminiscent of honeyed herbal tea more than an alcoholic beverage. I'm not much of a drinker so it might take me a while to come up with a cocktail including that; but I will sure share it with you once I nail down something outsanding. For now I was just diluting it with San Pellegrino with much delight.

And just like the untrained cook - the beginner perfumer will only think of fennel as a whimsical, edible note to work alongside other licorice like notes (aniseed, star anise, tarragon) and other candy-like notes (sweet orange, vanilla, cacao) to produce a licorice candy effect. But it would take more imagination and adventurous experimentation to unearth fennel's beautiful life alongside Moroccan roses, apricot-like magnolias, fruity-apply chamomile, and spectacular, precious osmanthus. And I've only just scratched the surface of the surprising effects such combinations can create.

Chartreuse Eau de Vie Tisane

Licorice meets flowers in this unusual tisane that’s described as a “luxury digestive tonic”, and was inspired by the Green Chartreuse liquor. Like its namesake, this tisane is prepared as an either cold or warm cordial and has a sweet anisic flavour, which comes from the fennel and anise seeds. Combined with milky chamomile flowers, it is sure to soothe the digestive system, yet thankfully it escapes the familiar baby-colic-relief brew because of the presence of other unusual elements, most importantly French tarragon, which contributes a quirky and refreshing, slightly minty and sweet clove-like character that is a departure from the familiar licorice and anise flavour; and lemon verbena, which is invigorating and balances the richness of the licorice. To top this off, osmanthus flowers and lavender buds add a perfumed element that complements the chamomile and adds not only to its therapeutic, soothing effect but also to its rich, sweet floral bouquet.

Chartreuse Eau de Vie tisane is available directly from Inner Alchemy Tea Co. in Vancouver (604) 731-1529 and is also sold in select Farmers’ Markets around Vancouver during the Spring, Summer and Fall. It costs $16 for a 2oz tin.

P.s. Like most antique liquors, Chartreuse liquor originated in a form of a medicinal concoction created by monks in a monastery of the same name. This one came from France, and for centuries is prepared by monks of the Carthusian Order who to his day are the only ones who know its secret recipe. Its origins are dated as far back as 1605, and its secret formula containing some 130 herbal extracts withstood many historical challenges including several expulsions of the monks from their monastery, restrictions from the French government, and the ruin of the distillery itself.

Tea in Gastown

I dropped by the new experimental Gastown Farmers' Market this morning. This market is a first in this neighborhood, which has very few grocery stores. So I hope it goes well and continues to happen throughout the summer – because if the starving artists in the lofts who live there have some food money to spend, they better get something local, freshly picker and/or organically grown.

And like any Farmers’ Markets, there is more than just fresh produce (even though that on its own is pretty darn exciting if you ask me!). There are some bakers and hand made soaps and cosmetics

We have a Farmers’ Market in the West End, just a few blocks away by Nelson Park every Saturday. But the purpose for my visit to the Gastown one was to pick up more Moonbeam Glory tea from Inner Alchemy's tent. From there the plan was to continue on to Powell Street Festival (the Japanese-Canadian cultural celebration that happens every year on the BC Day weekend).

Dawna's display was as lovely as could be, simple and elegant. And of course there is nothing better than hearing from her in person what is in each tea, how it tastes when warm or chilled, and see the passion and the glint in her eye as she tells the tale of each tea blend.

I also picked another favourite: Verdant Jewel, which I'm sipping now as I write this: a gorgeous melange of green tea and silver needle white teas with just a hint of refreshing mint leaves and crystalized ginger. It makes a stunning chilled tea and is a good, interesting substitute to more traditional green teas.

I also decided to be adventurous and buy to new teas that I've never tasted before: Little Star, which is a Puerh with hand-picked Chrysanthemum flowers; and Chartreuse Eau de Vie, an aperitif/digestive tea or cordial with French tarragon, fennel, chamomile and osmanthus. I am still waiting for my friend Tina who is a die-hard Chrysanthemum lover to try Little Star. But I have brewed the Chartreuse Eau de Vie several times since the market and will tell you more about its licorice-floral wonders on a separate post.

There were other artisans and vendors in the market that caught my eye, including this French Clay and Vetivert soap from Royal Herbs. They sell several other soaps and herbal preparations (i.e.: infused oils and various cosmetics and lotions) as well as some essential oils and synergies. But this grabbed my attention immediately because I’m suck a sucker for anything with vetiver, and recently I’ve been trying various vetiver soaps. This hand made soap bar smelled so nice and simple. The soap is a little sofat and has a nice rich lather, is not drying at all, and the best of all – has an incredibly nutty vetiver aroma, all natural.

And last but not least: Say See Bon Pattisserie, which makes the only macarons worth eating in Vancouver. The chocolate ones were served at my Tropical Tea Party. I tried Charlene’s matcha macarons this time, which she said have a new recipe for the filling, incorporating a white chocolate ganache. They were fantastic! I like them just as much as the chocolate – they are both perfect in flavour and texture, which is very challenging to achieve with French macarons.

And speaking of green tea - after that we went to the Powell Street Festival finding refuge from the heat in the shade and enjoying some summery Japanese street food, such as this shaved ice with green tea and azuki beans. It does not come with a cherry on the top - that was just part of the picnic I picked up at the farmers' market.
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