This is an unusual combination of Mediterranean ingredients with British resourcefulness, facilitated by an Israeli chef.
Fennel is a Mediterranean plant, attested in Mycenaean Linear B tablets as ma-ra-tu-wo (it is still called marathos in Greek). Linear B was used by professional scribes for administrative purposes – we know that fennel was stocked or traded in Mycenaean palaces in the late bronze age (Helen of Troy enjoying fennel with honey?).
Fennel was introduced in the British Isles probably by the Romans. It is mentioned together with thyme, another ingredient of this recipe, in the pagan “Nine Herb Charm”, intended to treat poisoning and infection.
Crumble toppings became popular in the UK during WWII, as an economical alternative to pies due to shortages of ingredients as a result of rationing. (Despite its humble and rustic associations it crossed the channel and became popular with the french).
These two different ‘streams’ come together in this recipe of Ottolenghi , with some dissonance, because of the sugar in the crumble. You can have it cold or warm, as a starter or as a main dish.
This recipe is adapted from “Ottolenghi, The Cookbook”.
Serves 6-8 as a starter or 4 as a main dish.
For the crumble
- 67g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 100g all purpose flour
- 30g caster sugar
- 100g grated parmesan cheese
For the gratin
- 1kg fennel bulbs
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp thyme leaves, plus a few thyme sprigs
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Tbsp coarse sea salt
- 1 Tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- 200ml whipping cream
- 300g cherry tomatoes
- 1 tsp chopped parsley
For the crumble
Put the flour, sugar, grated parmesan and butter in a bowl and mix with your hands or an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until it resembles breadcrumbs. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 200ºC.
Cut off the fennel stalks and cut each bulb lengthways in half. Cut each half into slices 1cm thick. Place in a large bowl with the olive oil, thyme leaves, garlic, salt, pepper and cream and toss together. Transfer to an ovenproof dish and scatter the crumble evenly on top.
Cover the dish with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil, scatter a few thyme sprigs and arrange the tomatoes on top. Return to the oven and bake for about 15 minutes, until the gratin has a nice golden colour.
Remove from the oven and allow to rest for a few minutes. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve hot or warm.