Let us not forget to honor fennel. It grows on a strong stem and spreads its branches wide. Its taste is sweet enough; sweet too its smell.
from Hortulus, by ninth-century Benedictine abbot Walahfrid Strabo, trans. from the Latin by Raef Payne
But fennel was a big deal in the Middle Ages. Twelfth century mystic Hildegard of Bingen ascribed medicinal properties to it, and believed it could treat coughs, colds, heart problems, and even body odor. My favorite supposed use for fennel was as an appetite suppressant and metabolism booster. I don't know about you, but after the holidays I think I'm going to eat fennel every day!
This is another recipe from our old fourteenth-century friend, Forme of Cury. The original calls for powder douce, a mix of cinnamon, sugar, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg or mace that I used in the Peas Porridge from Day 3. I found several translations that omit it, and so I decided to try my fenkel in soppes without powder douce as well. I don't think it suffered for the absence, but next time I make this I'll probably use some, just to see if there's a big difference.
I'm not sure what I expected this dish to taste like - truth be told, in looking over the ingredients, I thought it might taste a little ... weird. And it definitely had a very unfamiliar flavor - this isn't exactly a dish that most modern cooks would throw together. That said, the sweet fennel combined with the onions, saffron, and wine really grew on me, and I especially loved eating my thick slice of bread as it grew soft from absorbing all the savory sauce.
I adapted a translation of the recipe I found on a database of medieval and Anglo Saxon recipes hosted by Carnegie Mellon.
Fenkel in Soppes
2 bulbs of fennel with the tops trimmed off & cut into matchsticks
4-5 onions, thickly sliced
1 heaping tsp ground ginger
10 threads of saffron, crumbled
few pinches of salt, to taste
2-3 tbsp olive oil
2/3 cup each of dry white wine and water
thick slices of whole grain bread, for serving
Place the onions and fennel in a wide, deep skillet. Sprinkle the spices on top, and then add the oil and the liquid. Bring to a boil and reduce heat and simmer gently, covered, stirring occasionally, until tender but not mushy. Then, "take brede ytosted and laye the sewe onoward." Sorry! I mean, take toasted whole grain bread and serve your fennel and onions on top, along with a generous portion of sauce.
Aside from the new and surprising taste, I also love this dish because once you've chopped everything, it's a no-brainer as far as the cooking is concerned, and when things get hectic I really appreciate making a simple meal like this.