Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited — in both variety and nutritional value — our “modern” diets have become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs, those plants that — although not well-known today — were, just one short generation ago, honored “guests” on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents’ homes. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS examines the availability, cultivation and benefits of our “forgotten” vegetable foods and remedies and — we hope — helps prevent the loss of still another bit of ancestral lore.
Sweet, licorice-flavored anise (Pimpinella anisum) has been a favorite household herb for nearly 3,000 years, and is just as popular now as it was in the days of ancient Greece. It was known to Pythagoras as a remedy for epilepsy, to Hippocrates as a cough suppressant, and to Pliny the Elder as a cure (albeit temporary) for halitosis and disagreeable dreams.
Down through the centuries, anise has been variously used as an insect repellent (particularly effective, it’s said, against lice), a mouse lure (to attract the rodents to a trap), an aphrodisiac, a charm to ward off the Evil Eye, an agent to put dogs off the scent of a fleeing criminal, and a fragrance. But it is as a seasoning that anise is best known today, imparting delicious flavor to a host of culinary creations.
The seeds are the most widely used part of the plant. (Its leaves, too, are tasty and can be snipped into salads, sprinkled over finely chopped vegetables, or steeped in hot water to make a tea.) Whole or crushed, these kernels are added to breads, cakes, cookies, applesauce, soups and beverages. With a colorful candy coating, they’re a favorite condiment in Europe, and as the name implies, they’re the source of flavor in the famous liqueur called anisette. The Romans, who used the seeds for paying taxes and making perfume, also baked them in special cakes to be served at the end of a rich meal.
Indigenous to Egypt and the Near East — where the finest variety is said to grow — the anise plant is a semi-hardy annual that may not reach maturity in the short, cool, rainy summers of some areas. In friendlier climes, though, the herb is easy to raise from seed (which is available from most herb outlets). It requires plenty of sunlight but only moderately rich soil. Sow the seeds in the warm days of May (they need a soil temperature of about 70 degrees to germinate) for harvest in August, and plant them directly in the garden, as anise doesn’t transplant well. Cover the seeds with about 1/8 inch of soil, and expect sprouts in approximately four to six days.
The plants will reach heights of 18 to 24 inches and display large primary and feathery secondary leaves. Clusters of tiny, yellow-white flowers appear in midsummer, followed by the ribbed, teardrop-shaped fruits called “aniseed” for which the herb is justly famous. Each plant has from one to six clusters with six to 10 flavor nuggets in each. When these have ripened to a gray-brown color, they can be harvested — in the morning, with the dew still on — by clipping the entire head into a paper bag. The seed can be spread out to dry in the sun or light shade, and stored in tightly stoppered jars.
For best results, rotate the crop from year to year with other herbs, such as basil.
Holiday Anise Cookie Recipe
There are many fine recipes using anise. One favorite is for this simple holiday cookie, adapted with the permission of the publisher from Best Loved Recipes of the American People by Ida Bailey Allen (Doubleday, 1982, $8.95).
Sift together 2 cups of flour, 3/4 teaspoon of ground aniseed, and 1 cup of sugar. [EDITOR’S NOTE: You can substitute date or turbinado sweetener — to taste — if desired.] Cut in 3/4 cup of cold butter until the mixture is flaky. In a separate bowl beat together 1 egg and 1 tablespoon of milk, then add these to the flour mixture. Shape the dough into tiny (1/2-inch-diameter) balls, place them 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet, and flatten each ball to 1/16-inch thickness. Bake them for 6 to 8 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit — until the edges are lightly browned — but don’t overcook!