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.

Asian Pear & Fennel Salad

Fall fruits are flavourful, fragrant and full of interesting textures. Such are Asian pears (Pyrus serotina) - they absorb the summer sun and turn it into a crisp, crunchy texture full of intriguing subtle flavours reminiscent of pineapple and ripe quince rosiness - yet without that very hard core or need of cooking. Its aroma is subtle yet floral and robust. This must be because of the unique esters in it - which if you get a tree-ripened fruit, will really shine through. The supermarket variety just don't cut it (though they still got the crunchy texture).

I particularly enjoy using Asian pears in savoury salads, as their texture is firm and they hold their shape through the tossing, turning or even marinating that I like to put my sturdy vegetables through. They are also not nearly as sweet as other pears, and are just a little more neutral and readily get along with other flavours.

Asian pears are particularly fantastic with crunchy, fresh fennel bulbs. I slice them as thinly as possible, add some shaved carrots (creative use for your vegetable peeler!) and toss them with pine nuts, goji berries and some pomegranate seeds if I happen to have some. And the best part is that this salad will taste amazing the next day, once the fennel seeds have soaked up some moisture and release more of their licorice-like sweetness. For this particular salad I used fresh, still green fennel seeds, so no marinating was necessary. If you are lucky to have some growing in your garden - or out in the wild - this is a marvelous way to use fresh spice.
I also was lucky to have a jar of marinated sweet & spicy butternut squash around and add it the first time around. I will post a recipe for marinated butternut squash another time!

1 bulb fresh fennel laved or quartered and then thinly sliced
1 ripe and firm Asian pear, cored, halved and thinly sliced
1 carrot, shaved with a vegetable peeler
1-2 Tbs raw pine nuts
2 Tbs dried goji berries
2 Tbs fresh pomegranate seeds (optional)
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil (I prefer the Lebanese, Israeli or Greek oils; the majority of Italian olive oils that are imported to North America are dull and inferior)
Juice from half a lemon (about 1 Tbs)
1/2 tsp dried fennel seeds

Prepare all fruit and vegetables and toss in a salad bowl with the dressing. Garnish with pine nuts, goji berries and pomegranate seeds (if available). Serve immediately, or the next day (it will taste wonderful each time!).

Sniff or Treat Halloween Tea Party + Lucky Draw Announcement

Here are some of the highlights of the Sniff or Treat Halloween Tea Party that occurred yesterday afternoon. Hopefully the sights and the stories will convince you to be among our guests next time (if you happen to live or visit in the erea).

But first of all, let me announce the lucky winner among the guests who signed the guestbook - who will receive a 5ml travel roll-on perfume oil of Black Licorice perfume.
We numbered the guests based on the order they signed the book, and than got Random.org to pick them. The lucky winner is guest no. 8, who's no other than (drum roll)...

James Sherrett!

Congratulations James, I hope you will enjoy the sweet smell of Black Licorice and come to many more parties!Black Forest cupcakes (left) and Spider Eggs (right) which really are almonds covered with dates and rolled in roasted black sesame seeds.

Pomegranate tarts, with strawberry creme fraiche or lime curd; and fig tarts in a match-cream cheese filling.

Pumpkin tarts with lavender-orange shortbread crust.

Blue Cheese & Concord Grapes scones, Fennel & Golden Sultana scones, served with Devonshire cream and various jams and preserves, such as:
Bluebarb by Karin Brauch of Preserved BC Sunshine
(created with Vancouver unsprayed rhubarb, wild Cloverdale blueberries and married with a hint of Okanagan white wine).

Spiced Eggplant Confiture
(I made them myself based on a Morrocan recipe)

Raspberry Jelly by Naturally Rooted

Tea sandwiches: in the picture you see the tarragon-orange-fennel tea sandwiches, made with organic cream cheese and freshly grated orange zest and tarragon herb, and finely sliced fresh fennel bulb.
We also made cucumber-wasabi sandwiches, carrot-ginger, and deviled-egg-salad ones.

Fresh Mission figs and homemade biscotti (anise-almond; chocolate-hazelnut)

Kurogoma cupcakes, with black sesame cake and a matcha-cream-cheese frosting.

Teas served:
Hulnejan (the witche's brew)
Roses et Chocolat
Lapsang Suchong (ArtFarm)

And last but not least - the presentation touched on the connection between the spirit world and incense and plant essences; how incense was and still used to communicate with the spirit world and with loved ones that passed away, and smelling some of the essences of resins and woods used from ancient times for making incense: opoponax, myrrh, frankincense, costus, agarwood and more. We also smelled cade oil, which has a smoky, camp-fire scent and is similar to the Lapsang Suchong we drank in the party. And lastly, we burned a Japanese Kyara incense stick (the highest quality of oud) of the kind that is burnt on a daily basis in home-shrines for the family ancestors, and myrrh resin because of its connection to earth and embalming the dead in Egypt.

And below are some pictures of the guests at the party:

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