Fennel in Bartolomeo Scappi

I was doing the staring out the kitchen window, not really thinking about anything, waiting for the kettle to finish boiling and vaguely admiring my mini herb bed. The fennel went a bit more mad than I was expecting – which is good to know for my next garden – and I was admiring the strong yellow of the flower heads, even though they’ve largely gone to seed. I’m looking forward to my seed harvest. Because I’m moving house (hopefully at least) I didn’t actually harvest the pollen this year, I wanted this garden to be about the bees and I was hoping for seeds before I go. I am sort of sorry I didn’t take some of the pollen earlier though. Fennel pollen is one of my favourite discoveries, one I’d likely have never made without the SCA. I’m hoping to have a little fennel plantation to supply me with pollen from next year, because it can be expensive here in Ireland, and definitely hard to find to buy here.

Fennel is an awesome addition to a garden. I didn’t enjoy the aniseed-y flavour as much as a child but I certainly have acquired the taste for it since. You can eat the tender, leafy young stems, the pollen and the mature seeds of both cultivated and wild fennel. It grows very tall with feathery kind of Dill like leaves and flat heads of small yellow flowers. If you want to eat it the more substantial vegetable/bulb you need to grow the cultivars that produce the white, swollen, over ground bulbs – I think its Florence fennel? Even if you never ate it it’s fantastic for pollinators and adds interest in the back of a herb planting or a border generally.

I personally just love rolling the fronds around in my hands just to get the smell. Anyone who knows me knows I bliss myself chopping herbs, I looks forward to a future of harvesting, drying, making herb mixes and distilling essences and oils and making vinegars, It’s going to be awesome. The older I get the more I think I just like turning things into other things, which is why I so adore ink and pigment making. The 5 year old me that wanted to be a witch never grew out of it. I’m also mildly amusing myself writing this post after the mushroom’s in Scappi one because fennel used to be used in antidotes, and Culpepper believed fennel to be an effective antidote for poisonous mushrooms and snake bites. A plaster of fennel roots was a traditional treatment for the bites of mad dogs. I’m not sure if the idea about snakebites came from Pliny’s assertion that snakes ate and rubbed up against fennel after shedding to improve their eyesight in The Naturalis Historie.

The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi is probably my favourite cook book to try things from and certainly been the most fun to work with as a forager in training. At one point in my SCA cooking career I was picking recipes and spotted a beef recipe online looking for fennel pollen, an ingredient I had never used before. There is a temptation sometimes to swap ingredients out for ‘close enough’ things, or to drop them completely to appeal to a more modern or less experienced palate. Scappi himself mentions coriander as an alternative to fennel. Sometimes you drop a thing because it’s too expensive. I’ve decided to make Scappi my “try as hard as possible to get as close as possible” recipe source (hence my previous mushrooms in Scappi research) so I got myself a tin of fennel pollen in Fallon and Byrne in Dublin a few years back. It’s great, but I definitely want to go into my own production as part of my new garden plans. You can find wild fennel, but growing my own just makes the quantities make sense.

BUT – then I bought the actual book instead of using online recipes and realised I may have been getting it wrong anyway. I use the Terence Scully translation, I haven’t sat down to read it cover to cover, so I never noticed the footnote in Book 1 the Discourse of Scappi with this Apprentice until I started trying to gather all the fennel recipes together, prompting me to thoroughly read all mentions of fennel in each of his recipes calling for it. So here is the relevant footnote:

Personally with a plant like fennel I strongly suspect it went something like “go to the fennel plant and bring me whatever it is right now – either pollen or half pollen/half seeds or seeds, as available, and grind them up and use that then. The plant is edible, go nuts” But maybe I’m just a chaos demon who should never be allowed in a kitchen? For myself I like the softer, kind of sweeter aftereffect of fennel pollen rather than seed, and mixing the two for out of season as a cheaper flour and keeping the pure pollen for special stuff seems kind of useful to me? But I’m not Italian nor a 16th century celebrity chef.

So some recipes featuring fennel in Scappi anyone? The following are from The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco translated with commentary by Terence Scully

I.5 is in the Apprentice Discourse and is talking about the best salted beef fat (for every pound of beaten fat mix in two ounces of salt, one ounce of finnochio (fennel flour/pollen/ground up fennel seeds) and a quarter ounce of crushed black pepper. cover in a clean white linen cloth and store for a year in a dry place.

II.6 To spit-roast a rack of beef ribs is a recipe describing a “not usual” method of spit roasting matured age beef ribs having cut them into 4pound sizes and put each of those into a “press” for four hours with ground salt, fennel or coriander, crushed pepper and a little beaten garlic. Mount n a spit without blanching or larding them, optional rosemary amoung the meat pieces and sliced onion into the drippings, serve hotwith the onion pieces and a sauce made of vinegar, must sryup (concentrated grape juice) and common spices.
– Sweet and sour ribs anyone?

III.243 To make a thick soup of wild fennel

Get fennel in its season – what I mean is those white sprouts that form at the foot of wild fennel plants. Rmove the outer skin and take the tenderest part, wah them and mae up a bunch of them like broccoli and put them into a pot containing oil, water and salt. Cook them well. To thicken the broth put in some crustless bread that has soaked in the broth and been sieved. Add in pepper, cinnamon and saffron. When they are done serve them hot with their broth over them. If it is not a fasting day, put Parmesan cheese crusts in to cook with them and instead of oil put in butter. You can do a thick soup of their fronds too, with finely chopped onions.

I’m ignoring the sweet fennel entries til I determine what that means exactly.

II.207 is a thick soup of wild fennel shoots in meat broth – it is interesting in that he calls for “the whitest and tenderest part of the fennel in its season – in Rome from the fall to the end of March” – that doesn’t sound like it’s wild to me, that sounds more like a cultivar specifically grown for the larger white bulbs. The recipe itself is basically cook fennel, add a meat broth. 11.209 just references the way theyr’re cooked it isn’t a recipe for fennel itself.

II.46 To make bresaola of lean veal, fried or grilled
When bresaola are cut up the same as croquettes, and beaten on both sides with the spine of a knife, they are splashed with a little vinegar and Greek wine containing crushed garlic , ad sprinkled with fennel flour or ground coriander, pepper and salt, and then set in a press for ah hour, one on top of the other. To fry them in rendered fat or lard, first flour them, then fry them so they brown a little and they will stay soft rather than dry out. You serve them hot with sugar, cinnamon and orange juice over them; or else dress them with a sauce made of vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
But if you want them done on a grill, after they’ve been sprinkled and been in the press put them on the grill with a thin strip of pork fat fr each one, so that the bresaola stay softer, cooking them over low fire and turning them frequently. The smoke that forms beneath the grill because of the grease that is dripping will give them an excellent flavour and the very best taste. When they are done they should be served with one of the above-mentioned sauces with which the fried ones are served.

Now to get to bresaola and croquettes you need Book II 14: to make stuffed bresaola and croquettes (translated from polpette) from a loin of beef – I’m going to be honest with you, I’m getting fed up of my own terrible typing so I’m taking an image

I adore these, and it was specifically these with fennel pollen that made me think about this post when I was looking out the window earlier, I also love the medieval BBQ “smoke makes things taste good”

I think this one looks interesting, but veal isn’t something I eat

Book VI 218 To prepare a thick soup of apples in any season is basically peeled, cored and quartered apple, cooked from starting in cold water (covering the apples by three fingers of water, adding fine sugar) very low slow cook, add sprig of dry sweet fennel when it starts to boil, cook gently over three hours.

This isn’t remotely exhaustive, it’s just me that’s tired, so I’ll stop it there. There are some turkey recipes with fennel in that are amusing to think of working into a Christmas meal in Book V if I remember correctly? I might come back to those in the season..


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