This incredibly easy to make fennel seed cracker is both elegant and humble. Crisp and aromatic it makes an excellent canapé cracker for cocktails, cheese and dips – yet it is simplicity itself. Made from only flour, water, fennel seeds, olive oil, and sea salt, it makes a tasty, satisfying, crunchy snack all on its own.
And because wild fennel is found growing in our urban wilds practically everywhere, I felt it deserved to be served at our upcoming Autumn Urban Wild Food & Tasting. Brought to the island (and across the new world) by early settlers it has escaped domestication and now grows profusely in sunny backyards, neighbourhood lanes and streets, by sea shores and in open fields.
Originating in the coastal Mediterranean region Foeniculum vulgar is a member of the carrot family which includes other popular spices such as cumin, coriander, anise, dill and celery.
And right now its seeds – highly prized throughout history for their flavour and medicinal properties – are ready for harvest. These hard, crescent-shaped little seeds are found in circular clusters (umbels) at the plants top branches – and they can be used whole or ground when still young and green, or mature and coffee coloured.
Fennel seeds possess an aromatic anise (or licorice like) flavour that some also describe as citrusy, woodsy and bittersweet, and it has been enhancing cuisine for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, China to India, Iran and the Middle East, fennel seeds were used to complement savoury and spicy dishes, fish, meat and roasted vegetables, baked goods and sweet treats equally. And if you’ve ever eaten those tiny pink and yellow coloured candies given out at the end of meal in an Indian restaurant, you’ve eaten roasted fennel seeds.
But fennel isn’t just delicious – it was, and still is, a healer extraordinaire. In virtually every herbal healing tradition from old world Europe, China, India and the Middle East, it was used to soothe indigestion and heal gastrointestinal issues, calm the nervous system and detoxify the blood.
In the Ayurvedic Indian healing tradition, fennel was used to stimulate the fiery metabolic energy of digestion, known as Agni, allowing us to assimilate food while ridding the body of wastes and toxins (Ama). In Chinese medicine, fennel has the properties of soothing liver Qi, regulates and harmonizes stomach Qi. In the western astrological tradition of herbalism, fennel is ruled by the house of Virgo, which governs the abdomen, intestinal track and digestive system.
Today many of the medicinal traditions surrounding fennel are being confirmed by modern science. Fennel has been shown to contain volatile oils which are highly effective in supporting digestion and stimulating gastric juices, relieving tension and relaxing muscle spasms, not to mention cleansing blood vessels, promoting circulation, reducing inflammation, swelling and pain.
Fennel was also believed to hold many magical powers, and was used for everything from enhancing second sight, to banishing evil spirits, to granting vigour, potency and strength. Greek myths tell when Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, he hid it a stalk of fennel.
The Roman scholar Pliny believed it allowed us to see into nature with enchanted clarity. In Old Europe it was one of the nine Anglo-Saxon magical herbs used in healing charms. Known for its ability to treat poisonous infections and other disease, it was also woven into garlands and wreaths and placed over doors and windows to protect from evil influences and unwanted intruders.
Now while I’m not sure that this simple fennel seed cracker will protect your home from unwanted influences, I like this advice given by the Crazy Herbalist; “Summon the image of wild fennel, standing tall, open and cheerfully in the moments frustration surrounds you.” Which works for me. But all in all, I think it’s clearly safe to say that this cracker is health promoting and pretty delicious.
With its tummy supportive influence, you could even call it it a ‘digestive’ which makes it a great accompaniment for heavier foods like cheeses or oily dips. Which is why we’ll be serving it up on our Urban Wild Food Walk & Tasting, alongside our Wild Herb Yogurt Cheese (infused with Sorrel, Garlic Mustard and Wild Onion) and Wild Green Pesto (made with Dandelion & Cat’s Ear leaves and plenty of pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan). And it will complement our savoury sweet Hawthorn and Rowan berry jellies, very nicely.
So without further ado, here is the recipe!
Wild Fennel Seed & Sea Salt Crackers
Note: After harvesting your fennel seeds you’ll find the darker more mature seeds will come loose easily from their branches with a good shake. Greener seeds may need a little more coaxing…but all are good and tasty.
- 1 cup organic whole wheat or spelt flour
- ½ tsp. baking powder
- 2 tsp. of sea salt (a coarser chunkier salt is nice)
- 1 tsp nettle seeds (optional if you have them, otherwise use sesame or poppy seeds)
- 1 tsp sheep sorrel seeds (also optional)
- 3 tsp fennel seeds, coarsely ground ( pestle and mortar works great)
- 2 pinches coarse black pepper
- 2 tbsp olive oil (also put aside 2 additional tbsp. for brushing on dough)
- 4 ounces warm water (with drop of lemon juice if available)
- Extra olive oil for brushing the cracker dough
- 2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (for sprinking atop the crackers for extra zest if you are so inclined)
- Mix dry ingredients, salt pepper and seeds in a large bowl along and give it a good blend with a whisk. Then pour in two tablespoons of olive oil and water. Stir well. After it turns doughy, knead it in the bowl a few times.
- Next place your dough on a floured surface and continue to knead lightly for about a minute.
- Shape the dough into a longish paper towel sized roll. Wrap in a tea towel and rest in the fridge for half an hour or so.
- Cut off one quarter of the dough and roll it out as thinly as possible on a flour-dusted surface, flouring as necessary as you go.
- Use a knife to cut this rectangle into long strips, then cut into smaller 2 – 3 inches rectangles (size is up to you).
- Lift and place each piece onto baking trays – and I’ve discovered that lining them with parchment paper makes the process easier if you have any.
- Brush the cracker dough liberally with remaining olive oil, then sprinkle with chunky salt, parmesan cheese, black pepper, and a few nettle and sorrel seeds (if you have them – otherwise poppy seeds are nice).
- Bake in hot preheated oven (425F) between 8 and 10 minutes. Once golden and crispy remove from oven to cool (and crisp up!)
- Once done place in a sealed airtight container.
And one final but very important cautionary note: please be sure that the seeds you are harvesting are fennel seeds. Hemlock seeds, which are very poisonous, grow in round umbels resembling fennel seeds. Learning to discern the different foliage and stem markings between these two plants is critical – and if the seeds, fronds and leaves don’t strongly smell like anise or licorice – walk away.