Herbs – Fennel

If you love Maltese food, you’ve surely already sampled the famous ‘patata l-forn’, that is, Maltese baked potatoes. This dish, served as an accompaniment to a number of meat recipes, such as Maltese rabbit or baked poultry, has one particular ingredient without which it wouldn’t really have that wonderful taste we all know and love. That ingredient is fennel (bużbież).

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Fennel is an indigenous herb from the carrot family, which is very common in the Maltese islands. It flowers between the months of May and October and featured so much in the lives of the Mediterranean people, that they even used it in their legends and myths. It was for example, thanks to a stalk of fennel that, according to Greek mythology, the hero Prometheus was victorious in stealing a bit of fire from Mount Olympus and the Greek gods. The ancient Romans used fennel as an eye-wash to treat visual problems, as well as a mouth wash to sweeten the breath, while Russian folk healers used fennel to treat colic.

Fennel, which is most abundant during spring and summer in Malta, sports pretty yellow flowers and is a resplendent plant which can reach up to three meters in height. Both the leaves and the seeds of the plant can be used to garnish or flavor meat, fish or cheese, however the traditional tasty touch which is given to certain particular recipes, such as Maltese roast potatoes or pork, can only be derived from the seeds.

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Fennel is even used in certain cocktails or alcoholic drinks. It is, for example, one of the main ingredients in the fermentation of the notorious 19th century green Absinthe.

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Fennel seeds can act as a laxative and so aid digestion, as well as prevent flatulence and treat constipation. This herb contains iron and histidine, an amino acid which can be helpful in the treatment of anemia. Since fennel also contains high contents of fibre, it can also be helpful in maintaining optimal levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Fennel is also rich in potassium, which is vital for a number of important body processes and functions, such as reducing blood pressure, as well as increasing electrical conduction throughout the body, leading to an increase in brain function and cognitive abilities.

Maltese Herbs: Fennel

According to a number of health and medical sources, fennel can also be used to treat hormonal related issues, such as the female menstrual cycle, which can be a sensitive and painful time. Since fennel is anti-spasmodic, it can be a remedy for uterine cramps. It can also regulate out of control menstrual cycles since it contains an essential hormonal substance called ‘emmenagogue’, which stimulates the blood flow in the pelvic area and uterus, and can therefore aid in re-starting irregular period flows.

Preparations made from fennel seeds are also known to be used in cleansing milks to treat oily skin as well as eczema. Leaves can be used fresh, or prepared in an infusion with oil or vinegar. The seeds may also be ground and drunk with boiling water, as well as chewed as a good breath freshener.

This article was written by me and published on LivingInMalta. To access the original version directly, please go here.

The Legend of the Mermaid Melusina – Men who break their word, and women who continue to love them

Some people say that women often find partners whose character resembles that of their father. Such, indeed is the story of Melusina.

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Melusina was the eldest daughter of a mermaid who had married a human man for love. The mermaid relinquished the freedom of the seas, gave up her scales and gained two normal legs, gave up her whole life, to become a mortal woman and live with the man she loved.

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She diminished, from sea-goddess of bream and wave, to mere woman of hearth and home. In return, she asked her husband for one thing only, that he not gaze upon her or his newborn child, whenever she gave birth, and that he give her one day in which to be alone with the child on that day. He consented, dazzled with her beauty and drunk with her love. They lived many happy years together, and were blessed with two daughters. One day, the man’s brothers and father asked him why his wife wanted this time alone and what sorcery she was performing on their children. The man became suspicious and fearful, distrustful of his wife, he broke his word, and hid in their chamber, while his wife was giving birth in another one. After the birth, his wife came back into the room with the child and started bathing her while giving her all the ocean-wide magic of the water.

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The man gasped, and she turned with tears in her eyes, knowing that their life together had ended. For he had betrayed her. He had broke his word and put others before his own true love.

The mermaid kissed her husband one last time, donned her scaly tail and went back to her watery home, leaving with her three daughters forever.melusina2a

Time passed and her youngest daughter, Melusina, began to question her parentage. Melusina was a half-goddess, mermaid while in the water, human maiden when she was dry. She was 15 years old, curious and bold, with a hundred questions. Pestering her mother until she told her the story of her father’s betrayal. Enraged at the falsity of this beast called man, whom she had never seen in her life, Melusina went to find her father. She spied him napping beneath a tree, bound and gagged him and took him prisoner. She wanted to make him pay for betraying her mother, for making her so lonely and sad throughout the last years, and for being a human man, and so different from his own daughters. She took him to a sea-cave, tied him to a stalagmite, and left him there while the tide came in, and the sea swirled angry and foamy around him.

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After the deed was done, she went  back to her mother and told her that the man who had betrayed her, the man who had left her broken-hearted and alone, had been punished. Melusina expected her mother to be pleased, what she did not expect was that her mother still loved her father. The ocean goddess’s wrath was indomitably, her anger unstoppable. In her sorrow and rage, she punished Melusina casting her out of the sea. With flashing eyes, she cursed her:

‘As I was betrayed by the thing I loved most, so shall you be. Your scales and power will diminish and you will try to escape from your human skin in vain. Only on moonless nights will you be able to be your true self. But beware, should anyone born of mortal woman see you in this guise, your body shall be ripped from you forever, and you will see only Death’.

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Alone and afraid, Melusina wandered around the wild forest, weak with hunger. Her face full of tears, her white feet bleeding and hurting, she finally found a lake where she rested and bathed in the light of the stars. The Duke of Poitou, who was riding home with his men, had stopped by the lake to drink, and saw the beautiful girl, naked and singing, glorious in her beauty, lounging amidst the fireflies.

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Entranced, he asked her to go back home with him and become his wife. Alone in a strange world, Melusina accepted, knowing she would need someone’s protection and a place to sleep, even though she distrusted all men. Like her mother before her, she asked the human Lord for one thing only, that once every month, on the dark of the moon, he would leave her alone to bathe and be in solitude, and like her father had done, he also accepted.

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The years passed, as years will, and Melusina gave her Duke many sons. Unfortunately, all her sons had scales, fish eyes, or gills. They were all deformed, and thus the Duke was never really happy. He could not understand his wife, who walked slowly and stared off into the distance as though at another world. He could not hear what she heard, or see what she saw. Her eyes were beautiful and enigmatic, full of mystery and pain he could not comprehend. In time, he became obsessed with the idea that his wife had a secret lover, whom she met at the dark of the moon. One night, when the moon was hidden, he hid behind a tapestry and saw his wife in her bath, her long irridescent tail glistening in the candle light, while she combed her long luxurious hair. Aghast, disgusted and horrified, he did not make a sound, until he could get away. A day later, news came that his youngest brother had been killed. While he was grieving, his wife went to comfort him and in anger and pain, he blamed her, shouting in front of everyone ‘It is your fault you demon! You serpent! You corrupted my sons with your blood and now even my brother is lost to me’. Melusina, deathly white, fell in a cold faint.

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When she came to her senses, her husband was sorry he had said those words. Sorry he had betrayed his love and been so cruel. Sorry he had said anything at all – but by then it was too late. Melusina’s raging watery nature broke forth from its cage until it consumed her. Her scales took over her whole body, the colors so blinding, that no one could look directly at her, until finally her body was consumed in agony. Her lamentations and screams could be heard all over the kingdom, and her husband qualied then, knowing that her blood would forever flow in the veins of his descendants.

When, on his deathbed, he anointed Melusina’s first son, the son with the mismatched eyes and webbed fingers, as his heir, the whole castle heard the mysterious disembodied wailing of Melusina, cursing and crying out, testament of the betrayal and fickleness of men. When, years later, the son died, leaving everything to his son after him, the same wailing could be heard. Throughout the years, each time a son of Melusina’s was about to die, the whole of Lusignan, whom in his youth its Duke had named after his beloved wife, rang with the agony and loss of the mother of the line. As it still does. As it always will.

Such is the curse which comes from betrayal.

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