Herb to Know: Chervil

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Chevril Butter

Anthriscus cerefolium
• Annual

Recipe:Lemon-Butter Sauce with Chervil

Chervil is an herb for the connoisseur of fine flavors and fragrances. Perhaps because of its family alliance to cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), an infamous British weed, chervil has never been widely grown in American gardens. In appearance, it resembles flat-leaved parsley, but its leaves are more finely dissected and paler green. Its aroma and taste suggest the flavors of tarragon and fennel, although it’s much less potent than the latter.

Interestingly enough, chervil has almost no recorded history as a medicinal herb. Perhaps because of its delicate scent and flavor, most ancient people seem to have ignored chervil in favor of more potent potions. Chervil is reputed to have a mild stimulating effect (Culpeper, the 19th-century English herbalist, wrote that “it doth moderately warm the stomach”), but its main use is in the kitchen.

Although its role often is usurped by the more widely available French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), chervil’s unique flavor earns it a place in every gourmet’s kitchen. Along with tarragon, chives and parsley, chervil is a component of fines herbes, a blend indispensable to French cooking. Chervil stars in béarnaise sauce, a variation of hollandaise. Besides these traditional uses, chervil also is an excellent complement to any mild food. Use the chopped leaves to enhance sole and other white fish, chicken, eggs and zucchini, as well as salads, sauces and soups. Its flavor is best fresh; if you plan to use it in cooked dishes, add it near the end of the cooking process.

Chervil in the Kitchen Garden

Chervil is easy to grow from seed, but it requires cool, moist conditions. In hot weather or dry soil, the plants will bolt (flower and set seed) rather than produce lush leaves for harvest.  For that reason, aim to grow chervil during the coolest part of your growing season. Also, a semi-shaded location, such as tucked between other plants, can help shield chervil from the heat of midsummer sun. Chervil prefers a light soil that retains moisture, so be sure to work in plenty of compost.

In Zone 6 and north, plant chervil in early spring for harvest into summer. In Zones 7 and south, plant it in late summer to early fall for harvest throughout winter and spring. Although chervil is quite hardy, it will need some protection–such as a row cover–when temperatures drop below freezing in fall. Or, simply plant chervil directly in a cold frame in the fall for harvest throughout the winter.

Chervil is an intriguing herb. Many do not appreciate its unique scent and taste, but every herbalist and gourmet should grow it at least once. Try chervil this year–you’ll be charmed by its dainty appearance and delicate flavor.

Sources: Chervil seeds are available from most mail-order suppliers of herb seeds and plants.

Caleb Melchior serves as cook and gardener on an estate in Perry County, Missouri. He writes for numerous publications and enjoys testing new and unusual plants.

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