Wild Fennel: Greece's Mythic Ingredient

Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

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Wild fennel: Greeks call it maratho; Italians refer to it as finocchio selvatico; and it grows all over the Greek islands and the mainland. Marathon, the area south of Athens where in 490 BC Greeks won the famous, decisive battle against the invading Persian army, probably acquired its name because of its abundant fennel fields. A young soldier, Pheidippides, ran the 42 kilometers from Marathon to Athens to announce the triumphant victory, thus inspiring the eponymous run.

The 19th-century British poet Robert Browning tapped the myth and, of course, its fennel fields, in his ode to the young runner: "Fight I shall, with our foremost, wherever this fennel may grow," Pheidippides proclaimed. Little did he know the run from Marathon to Athens would be his last, as "Like wine thro' clay, / Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died, the bliss!"

I have substituted regular fennel bulbs, including their tops, further intensifying their aroma with freshly ground fennel seeds.

Wild fennel is mostly used as an herb to add aroma to all sorts of vegetable, meat, and fish dishes, and it is essential in marathopites--the small, phylo-wrapped turnovers made in Crete. The filling for these pies contains various kinds of wild and cultivated greens, but the distinct aroma and licorice-like flavor of wild fennel is so prominent it lends its name to the dish. The sweetness of wild fennel also balances the lemony flavor in yahnera: a dish in which greens, potatoes, and onions, scallions, or leeks are stewed in olive oil with plenty of lemon juice; occasionally yahnera is enriched with artichokes, and the wild fennel of spring complement this simple yet delicious dish.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

In the summer, though, there are precious few fresh, tender leaves at the base of the tall fennel stocks that dot the Kean landscape. Large and small crowns of tiny yellow flowers adorn the top of fennel clusters that line the roads or grow at the edge of the sea. The flowers will soon become green seeds, which I try to gather, dry, and add as precious supplements to my bread-spice blends. I was astonished when I read that in antiquity and up to the middle ages fennel seeds were considered, like garlic, a deterrent of evil spirits; people draped little sacks with sprigs and seeds over their doors, and stuffed their keyholes with fennel seeds in order to block out ghosts and malevolent apparitions.

Last summer, missing my favorite fennel sprigs, I started to use the blossoms instead, flavoring my house-marinated fresh sardines and anchovies, as well as my stuffed tomatoes and other summer vegetables. I also thought of mixing the tiny yellow flowers with rock salt, and I am proud to confirm that, even now, a year later, the salt maintains its nice sweet fennel aroma, adding an extra dimension when sprinkled over grilled or poached fish.

Because wild fennel is not easily found in the United States, for these recipes I have substituted regular fennel bulbs, including their tops, further intensifying their aroma with freshly ground fennel seeds, thus creating a very similar flavor. That means you can try the simple dish from the Cycladic island of Folegandros all year round. Maria Primikiri, an inspired cook, gave me the recipe explaining that in the necessarily frugal days of yesteryear, poor people used to serve this strongly aromatic and flavorful stew over fried stale bread.