A cook’s must-have chic herb

It can be tem­per­a­men­tal to grow and very sub­tle to taste, but this is one French herb that’s well worth adding to your gar­den.


My hus­band first spot­ted chervil in our gar­den on an evening walk-about. He has an eye for any­thing new and pounced upon the clump of fine, pars­ley-like fo­liage hid­ing un­der the ap­ple trees.

“What’s this?” he said ac­cus­ingly. “You never told me those were there!”

Of course not. I had been hop­ing to keep them hid­den un­til they had a bit more stamina as I feared they would not sur­vive the vi­cious scis­sor at­tacks he in­flicts when he’s on the hunt for herbs.

It was too bad and too late for the chervil, which soon looked like the lawn­mower had been over them.

Chervil is har­vested by the hand­ful and used lib­er­ally by dis­cern­ing cooks. It’s an in­dis­pens­able herb in French cook­ing, a key in­gre­di­ent of the French ‘ fines herbes’ (along with pars­ley, chives and tar­ragon). It is de­scribed as tast­ing like ‘fine anise with a hint of black pep­per’ or ‘pars­ley-like with a hint of myrrh’ and is what gives Béar­naise sauce its dis­tinc­tive taste.

But you won’t find chervil in your su­per­mar­ket. Its soft leaves per­ish quickly af­ter pick­ing so a home-grown patch is the only way you’ll get your hands on this cook­ing trea­sure.

Third time lucky

I would like to say my patch was a care­fully planned plant­ing but it was at least my third at­tempt. When I grew chervil in full sun it got sun­burnt, turned pink, then promptly bolted. In wet clay soils it rot­ted, and the tap-rooted trans­plants quickly ran to seed.

In the end, chervil de­cided where it wanted to be, which is rather typ­i­cal. It chose a moist, well-drained but rather weedy gar­den bed in light shade un­der our ap­ple trees. This is also the low­est point in the gar­den where the ir­ri­ga­tion runoff drains through.

Chervil has self-seeded hap­pily there for three years now. As the tem­per­a­ture low­ers in Fe­bru­ary, the tiny fern-like seedlings spring up, of­ten in great abun­dance. I sim­ply thin them and spread com­post mulch around them to keep them grow­ing strongly. I’ve tried trans­plant­ing them with lit­tle suc­cess; they wilt rather hor­ri­bly and bolt early.

I al­ways let a few strong plants go to seed. The fern-like, lacy fo­liage is at­trac­tive, but the un­ex­pected bonus are the um­bels of tiny white flow­ers which brighten this shady cor­ner. If you have a lit­tle imag­i­na­tion, they re­sem­ble sprin­kles of white fairy dust in the twi­light.

It puz­zled me why my hus­band liked this un­der­stated herb so much. Any­one who knows him would say that sub­tlety is not his strong point. Some of his culi­nary cre­ations are in­tense!

How­ever re­gard­ing the scis­sor at­tacks, it ap­pears my over-pro­tec­tive in­stincts weren’t needed. The chervil wasn’t too in­tim­i­dated by his first ra­zor cuts and re­cov­ered just fine to pro­duce an even more abun­dant crop of leaves. But the cook’s zeal soon out­stripped sup­ply and more chervil sow­ings were needed.

My ad­vice is to get ahead of the cook! Plan sev­eral patches to se­quence sow­ings and sow again when the first batch is pick­able. Grow chervil lav­ishly! Your friends and fam­ily will be im­pressed with this chic lit­tle French num­ber plucked ef­fort­lessly from your own back yard.

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