The scent of this spice attracts many types of animals including cats, bears, dogs, mice, and even fish – but is poisonous to pigeons. What is it? If you said anise, you are correct!
Originally a native of Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor, anise is one of the oldest known herbs. It was cultivated in northern Italy in Roman times when it was used to flavor a popular spice cake baked in bay leaves and eaten after a feast to prevent indigestion. Many believe that this cake, called mustaceum, is a precursor of the modern wedding cake. In the middle ages the use of anise spread to central Europe and it became one of the first spices Europeans brought with them to the new world. Chinese, Indian and European traditional medicine made use of anise for digestive problems, to relieve toothache, coughing, inflammation, as a disinfectant, a breath freshener, and to prevent insomnia, among other things. As with other spices that have been used as medicines historically, modern science has proven that anise does indeed have many of these curative qualities, especially as an expectorant.
Anise oil has been used as bait on mouse traps, and smeared on fishing lures to attract fish. Bear hunters have used it to attract bears and beekeepers to attract bees. It’s what makes greyhounds run so ardently after that rabbit in dog races. As far as humans go, the delicate herb is most famous for the licorice flavor of its seeds and leaves and is commonly used to flavor cookies, pastries, and confections. It’s also used internationally as a flavoring in liqueurs: the French Absinthe, Anisette and Pastis, Greek Ouzo, German Jägermeister, Italian Sambuca, Turkish Raki, and the Peruvian Anís.
Use anise to spice up fruits or even sweet vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes. Add a pinch to soups, stews, poultry, fish, meat, even stuffing. Anise works especially well with eggs, cheese and spinach, so experiment the next time you make an omelet, soufflé or cheesy pasta. If you happen to have it growing in your garden you can add the leaves to salads.