Feathery flavours

The subtle appeal of aniseed
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The Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots on the boulevard St Germain are outrageously tourist infested, but I love them still. Yet whenever I have sit and while away an early evening hour there, watching the pretty people and the street performers, I find myself wondering what to drink. Then that particularly Parisian Left-Bank feeling urges me towards a glass of milky pastis. After all, everyone else is drinking it.

I never do, however, because I cannot abide the stuff. Oh, it always looks marvellous, this cloudy drink, with its familiar- shaped and covetable water vessel on the side, and ice chinking in the glass. The aniseedy smell is lovely, its colour is beguiling and the associations to "when in Rome..." are almost irresistible, but I just loathe the strong taste in my mouth. I've tried to like it many times, it just doesn't seem to work for me. So I have a gin and French.

Funny then, that when it comes to culinary matters, aniseed is a favourite of mine. Its versatility and wealth of pungent flavour appear in many guises: the flesh and seeds of bulbous Florence fennel, aniseed's feathery herbaceous cousin; the more delicate chervil; dill weed, to a certain extent; and star anise from the oriental school. Larousse Gastronomique refers to aniseed as "sweet cumin", which is news to me. And I love cooking with pastis, Pernod particularly; Ricard I find a little too assertive.

Pernod is wonderful with shellfish. A lobster dish that I learned to cook years ago is pushed into a different league when flamed with this yellow liquor. I also add Cognac, but in judicious quantities. Other flavourings are finely chopped shallots and garlic; and I cook it in butter and olive oil. This is heady stuff, and some might say that the flavour of the lobster hasn't a chance here. Not true. It seems rather to accentuate the sweet flesh as it sizzles in the fats along with its carapace; sucking the shell here is one of the very finest of slobberings.

Adding Pernod to anything aniseedy simply serves to emphasise the positive. Splashing a little over halved fennel bulbs, for instance, before roasting in the oven, introduces a deep savour. A spoonful added to a roast chicken that is cooked with butter and tarragon can work wonders. Similarly, a large, trimmed monkfish tail, seasoned and dusted with flour, and then coloured in olive oil and butter, is wonderfully good when flamed with a couple of tablespoons of Pernod and a little white wine, before roasting in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Distribute some chopped fennel and whole garlics left in their skin around the fish while it cooks to add further interest.

Another delectable lotion for cooked fish - a dressing, really - uses the sweet anisette de Bordeaux. I admit to having given you this recipe once before, but it was about a year ago, and the sauce is so good that it deserves another airing. It is best spooned over lobster that has been freshly boiled and split in half. Grilled scallops also take to it, as do freshly cooked prawns or large cooked mussels, still warm, on the half shell. The recipe comes from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, by Elizabeth David, and appears under the title of lobster Courchamps. If you are using the sauce with lobster, remove the roe, and creamy parts of the head, and mash into the dressing.

Lobster Courchamps

This "sauce for boiled lobster" is enough to accompany 2 lobsters, or two first courses using scallops, mussels, prawns, etc, as above.

2 small shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1 heaped tsp freshly chopped tarragon leaves

2 tbsp freshly chopped parsley

salt and pepper

1 level tsp Dijon mustard

24-30 drops soy sauce

about 6 tbsp fruity, extra-virgin olive oil

juice of 1 small lemon

1 tsp anisette de Bordeaux (Pernod can just be used, but buy a bottle of the anisette and, as Mrs David points out, it will last for some time)

In a small bowl, mash up the lobster coral, if using, with the shallots, tarragon and parsley; otherwise just mix the shallots and herbs together. Add seasonings, mustard and soy sauce. Whisk all together thoroughly and then add the oil in a thin stream, as if making vinaigrette. Stir in the lemon juice and anisette.

Braised fennel, serves 4

Use a cast-iron dish (Le Creuset is perfect) for this recipe, if at all possible.

2 tbsp olive oil

4 large fennel bulbs, trimmed of bruised parts and cut in half (keep a few feathery fronds to chop and sprinkle over the finished dish)

25g/1oz butter

salt and pepper

1 tbsp Pernod

3 tbsp white wine

juice of 1 small lemon

Preheat the oven to 140C (fan oven)/150C (electric oven)/300F/gas mark 2.

Put the cooking dish directly on to a flame and heat the olive oil until it is almost smoking. Add the fennel, cut side down, and fry until well coloured. Turn over, and add the butter. Allow to froth, then turn down the heat. Season, and add the Pernod and white wine. Spoon these juices over the fennel and then add the lemon juice. Allow to bubble gently, cover with foil (or a lid, if you have one that fits tightly) and bake in the oven for 112 hours, or until the fennel is really soft and meltingly tender. Allow to cool a little before serving, as the flavour is improved by eating it lukewarm. Scatter with the chopped fronds.

This is a very good dish to serve with roast pork or veal.

Fennel and Pernod butter sauce, enough for 4 servings of grilled fish

This is, to all intents and purposes, a beurre blanc, that most lavish of French sauces: all butter and richness. Here, the basic ingredients of the sauce are bolstered by the addition of chopped fennel bulb, the herb itself, and Pernod.

2 small shallots, peeled and chopped

1 small bulb of fennel (about 4oz) trimmed and finely chopped

2 tbsp Pernod, plus 1-2 tsp

150ml/4fl oz dry white wine

150ml/4fl oz water

150ml/4fl oz tarragon vinegar

150g/5oz cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks

squeeze lemon juice

salt and pepper

1 tsp freshly chopped fennel herb

Put the shallots, fennel bulb, 2 tablespoons Pernod, white wine, water and vinegar into a stainless-steel or other non-reactive pan, and bring to a boil. Simmer until the liquids have been driven off and the mixture is mulchy, but not dry. Over a mere thread of heat, start to add the butter piece by piece, stirring with a wooden spoon or a whisk. As the fat is incorporated, the sauce will begin to form, but do not allow it actually to "cook". Once all the butter has been used up, remove the sauce from the stove and whisk vigorously, or put into a food processor (switched on for no more than 30 seconds or so, as this action is purely to homogenise the sauce). Pour into a fine sieve resting over a small, clean pan, and press the solids with the back of a spoon or small ladle, to extract all the flavours from the fennel/shallot mush. Now warm the sauce through over a very low flame, adding lemon juice, seasoning, the 2 teaspoons of Pernod and the chopped fennel herb. The sauce is now ready to use.

Now for something completely different, which has nothing at all to do with aniseed.

I bought some good-looking rhubarb the other day, and forgot to buy a single orange for its zest, to stew with the rhubarb (this happens to me so often; I worry about it sometimes).

The happy solution, after much rummaging in cupboards, was to substitute the weight of sugar called for in the recipe with a similar amount of marmalade. The result was really good. Accidents like this propel the culinary mind further, and it occurs to me that a similar preparation using ginger marmalade could be delicious too (ginger is marvellous with rhubarb), or a combination of both the conserves, perhaps.

To share my little discovery, slice 450g/1lb rhubarb into 2.5cm/1in pieces. Preheat the oven to 170C (fan oven)/180C (electric oven)/350F/gas mark 4.

Place the rhubarb in an ovenproof, lidded dish. In a small pan, warm 150g/5oz good marmalade (or orange jelly, if you don't want the bits) until runny, and spoon over the rhubarb. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Allow to cool naturally, then carefully spoon into a dish so as not to break up the fruit. Don't be tempted to add any other liquid; there is bags of it in the rhubarb itself, and it gently exudes during the cooking

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