Sharp right off Euston Road onto Gower Street, feet scrambling on the pavement, trying desperately to avoid the oncoming traffic of people. Late, always late. Through the iron gates. The stone temple of the UCL Octagon building stands opposite, almost two hundred years of study etched into its skin.
I head towards it, bag swaying pendulum-like on my shoulder; pages and pages of History weighing me down. Through the wooden doors, down the stairs and across a courtyard. Some students are drinking coffee, for me there’ll never be time for that.
Finally, I make it. A moment outside the door to catch my breath, neaten my hair. I’m late of course, some things never change. Then’s it’s in, find a seat, take out a pen, listen. Now I’m transported: From London to the Wild West, Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece. That’s History for you.
Sometimes in life we need to be transported away from the present. For food, it’s the same. Vegetables, for example, on the supermarket shelf are uniform, soulless; rewind hundreds, maybe even thousands of years though, and you’ll find its history.
Recently I had the pleasure of delving into the past of a food that to me, was as distant as the ancient civilizations I’m currently studying: fennel. Through the Random Recipe Challenge created by Dom at Belleau Kitchen, I was introduced to this new vegetable. Dom paired us up with a fellow blogger (I was joined with Janice from Farmersgirl Kitchen…a great blog!) who through her random number generator, assigned me with a recipe to cook for the challenge. I ended up with ‘Fennel a la Grecque’ from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable book.
Never having tried fennel before, I was intrigued…and dubious. However, its aniseedy flavour – whilst not to everyone’s taste – works so well in this dish. Paired with maple-glazed pork chops and apple, the acidity of the sauce cuts through the sweetness of the meat beautifully.
Jane Grigson reveals that Thomas Jefferson – a keen gardener – was a huge fan of fennel. In 1824 the American consul, Thomas Appleton, sent the President some fennel seeds, writing in his accompanying letter that ‘the fennel is beyond every other vegetable, delicious…’
And this really is delicious, especially when heated and stirred through pasta the next day.
So fennel – the vegetable of the Greeks and Thomas Jefferson’s garden – you’ve won me over. Now though, its time to stop studying vegetables and return to the History text books, although maybe the two can be amalgamated, after all, everything has a history….
Fennel A La Grecque – From Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book
– 2 medium onions
– 1 large garlic clove, crushed
– 150 ml olive oil (I only used enough to fry the onions in, so a lot less)
– 1/2 kilo tomatoes, peeled and chopped
– bouquet garni
– 1tsp coriander seeds, lightly crushed
– 100 ml dry white wine
– juice of two lemons
– three heads of fennel, blanched for five minutes
Stew the onions and garlic in the oiluntil they’re soft. Add the coriander, bouquet, tomatoes, wine, lemon and seasonings. Simmer for 15 minutes then put in the fennel. Cover the pan and stew for about half an hour. Remove the fennel to a serving dish and reduce the sauce if it’s looking quite thin. Pour hot over the still warm fennel. Cool, then put in the fridge to cool thoroughly (I served mine hot, which was delicious). Serve scattered with fennel leaves.