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.