The Battle of Marathon near Athens in 490BC was the beginning of the modern Age of Humanity. So much so that the great English historian John Stuart Mill observed that the Battle of Marathon meant more to English history than did even the Battle of Hastings.
The Athenians, on behalf of the wider Greek nation, defeated the much larger Persian army at this seaside town – an extraordinary victory ending decades of external threat. It was this moment that permitted the rise of civilisation and the growth of culture in the following two centuries. In those years, the knowledge and ideas that underpin our modern world came to be.
However the side-story of the soldier Phillipides, who supposedly ran 42km from Marathon to Athens to tell of the Greek victory before falling dead of exhaustion is an historical fabrication. It is a great story that inspired the modern race, but a myth nonetheless.
But imagine, for a moment, if the story was true. Phillipides would then have run into the agora (the public market) and cried out ‘We are victorious in the place of fennel!’.
That’s right, ‘Marathon’ translates from Greek as ‘place of fennel’. You’d agree that the legend loses some of its high-spirited romance once translated!
Fennel is central to the cuisine and culture of the Mediterranean basin. It’s peppery aniseed flavour is central to a raft of dishes including French bouillabaisse and Syrian lamb roast. It is also the key flavour in absinthe, the liqueur that drove the Romantic poets mad. Its seed are made into liquorice, and the pollen is a spice as prized as saffron.
Yet for all that culinary glory it is a declared weed in many countries, including parts of Australia. Growing easily in sandy and dry regions, fennel is prolific and hard to control, so you’ll no doubt find it growing near your place. But be careful not to confuse it with deadly hemlock, a similar-looking plant. Fennel has yellow flowers, hemlock white. Fennel smells of aniseed, hemlock of musty cupboards. Fennel is green and white, while hemlock will have purple blotches on its stems.
Perhaps the Persian cooks were not able to distinguish the two, and cooked up a hemlock soup at Marathon. Perhaps? Perhaps not. It’s about as likely as the story of Phillipides. But I’d certainly run a marathon for a bowl of good bouillabaisse, so perhaps the Greeks were onto something.
Caicucco – Livornese fish stew with garlic and salsa verde