How To Grow, Harvest, And Cook With Chervil
Chervil Anthriscum cerofoleum
If you have eaten fish with an aromatic herbal lemon sauce, you have tasted chervil. Or perhaps you appreciate the flavor of Bernaise sauce on meat or fish. With its subtle anise note, you know how chervil tastes. Its character is an elusive cousin of Parsley and Tarragon. You can substitute the two herbs for chervil, it will be nice but not the same. To get that delicate flavor, you do need chervil. (Pronounce it Sher-vil.)
The flavor of Chervil is subtle but mild with an anise-like hint. It is an infrequently found herb that would remind you of a mixture of parsley and tarragon.
Chervil’s Seasonal Flavor
Chervil is an essential flavor component of French cooking, the herb combinations being Tarragon, Chives, and Parsley, as well as Chervil. The latter is a seasonal herb used in spring as it does not survive in summer’s heat. Growing and cooking with chervil is one of the true pleasures of the kitchen that we can only achieve from our gardens!
A summer substitution for Chervil would be Parsley, Tarragon, or a combination of the two. Dill or Fennel would be useful in egg dishes.
Ways To Use Chervil
Use chervil with fish such as salmon, trout, and any delicate white fish; Its sauce adds a classic touch to many meat and poultry dish. Use it on vegetables, particularly delicate spring vegetables like asparagus, new potatoes, baby green beans, carrots, and spring greens. It will enhance any egg dishes.
Usable Forms Of Chervil
The delicate anise flavor is delicious and unusual when used as a fresh herb. It does not dry or freeze as successfully as most other herbs. You can make flavored vinegar or oil from it. This will extend your season of cooking with it for the full year. Otherwise, if you love its taste, use it seasonally. It is this unique flavor that is why you should grow it.
Chervil Cream Soup, there are many versions; here is one.
Fish with Chervil Sauce; there are many of these. Here is one from Sunset Magazine.
How To Get Chervil
Chervil is a herb best served fresh. It’s light scent and light anise flavor do not travel well. For this reason, you will rarely find it in grocery stores. The delicate nature of the herb encourages you to use it a lot, and it makes a luscious soup. If you want to cook and garnish with Chervil, you will need to grow it.
Substitutes For Chervil
Try parsley, tarragon, or a combination of both. The taste will be bolder, so you can use it a little less. Fennel and Dill are also possible substitutes.
With an appearance somewhat like its relatives, parsley and carrot top, chervil is sometimes called a perennial but usually grown as an annual. If you sow it in fall and mulch it well, it should seed itself and reappear in spring. In warm climates, it will grow in fall, spring, and even winter. In some climates, you can grow it in cold weather in a cloche. In our zone 10 climate, we can grow it all year, but summer is the hardest time. Chervil will produce seeds in very hot weather.
The plant will bolt (produce flowers, seeds, and then dies) in very hot and dry conditions, and its taste is negatively affected. To extend its useful life, plant it in some shade. Chervil is an excellent container plant. It has, however, a lengthy taproot. Seed it where it will stay. Like cilantro, which also bolts in heat, Chervil is a good plant to seed in succession plantings so that you always have some to cook with. If you like to make the famous chervil soup to serve 4, you will need three good bunches of the herb. If you plant plenty, you will use it.
Varieties Of Chervil
Chervil does look a lot like parsley, but it is a lighter green with fern-like, lacier leaves. The flowers are small and white and grow in compound umbels. (In an umbel, the flowers are on stalks of even length and form rounded shapes.)
Look for Chervil in three varieties, two of which have flat leaves;
- Crispum-curled leaves and a very subtle flavor. The plant is 1-2′ in height.
- Verissimo-shiny, dark green, flat leaves, this plant has a dense, compact growth habit. See it also under the name Brussels, winter type. It has a mild, sweet, anise flavor and is slow to bolt. This is a valuable feature as the flavor of chervil deteriorates when the plant flowers and bolts.
- Plain or flat chervil-this is the more often seen flat-leafed variety. Its appearance is most like flat-leafed Italian parsley, but the flavor is sweeter.
Where Did We Get Chervil
Chervil is native to the Caucasus region between The Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is thought to have traveled throughout Europe with the Romans.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) wrote about it in his “Natural History.” and recommended it as a cure for hiccups. Pliny was a philosopher and a general, but characters like him were often the early naturalists, writing about gardening and eating for health. Knowing what they thought about life in the garden gives us a sense of continuity.
Chervil For Health
Throughout the Middle Ages, it was valued for medicinal use, including as a tea for high blood pressure. How did they diagnose high blood pressure? Medieval doctors, and some who came before them, used the pulse to learn about the problem. Being dependent on herbal medicine, they treated it with plant-derived remedies, in this case, chervil teas.
If you are interested in these ideas, here are two posts you may like to read. The first, “Shakespeare’s Gardens” includes a visit to the house and garden of John Hall, Will’s son-in-law and a prominent physician. The second is about the Oxford Botanical Garden, designed in the 17th century to be a Physic garden and today is one of the world’s most important scientific gardens.
In the 17th century, the British herbalist, botanist, physician, and astrologer Nicholas Culpepper, wrote about it. (He went to Cambridge University where he apparently did his homework!) He said this:
“…does much pleasure and warm old and cold stomach”-Nicholas Culpepper
Issues In Growing Chervil
Sow or plant chervil in average to rich soil in sun or part shade. Use part shade in warmer climates. You can sow the seeds in spring or fall in two-week intervals. At the end of their season, they will drop seeds profusely and should regrow next season.
Plant new plants or thin seedlings to 12″ apart, the plants will grow 12-24″ tall. Keep the soil moist but not saturated. Water in the early morning, particularly if you have overhead water. Seedlings emerge in 14-28 days.
Container Planting and Growing
Chervil is an excellent container plant. Container growing allows the flexibility of moving the plant to improve light conditions if needed. The plant does however have a sensitive tap root. Use a container at least 12″ deep. It is an ideal plant for biodegradable seed pots as this allows the young plant to be moved easily.
Growing Chervil Indoors
The plant is an ideal indoor herb, its size ranges from 12-24″ in height and can be trimmed as you use it. Indoor light conditions are ideal for its less than full sun demands. Close to the kitchen is always a good idea for edibles.
Grow chervil in light shade in summer and in full sun in cooler weather.
Maintenance and Pruning
The plant performs best in evenly moist, but never, soggy sol. Use organic soil and add mulch to maintain cool soil temperature. Pinch the plants and deadhead to encourage new growth.
Feed the plants with a liquid fertilizer every six weeks.
Pests And Diseases
Aphids are a problem. Look for tiny dots on the underside of leaves, they can be in varied colors and produce a sticky substance, called “honeydew” on the foliage. This attracts ants and the problem is compounded. Wash them off with a stream of water. Encourage beneficial insects by planting companion plants to encourage them. Here is a program to add Sweet Alyssum to do this.
Dampening Off-a a common problem of seedlings that fail for what appear to be unknown reasons. This is a fungal disease and customarily indicates over-watering or excessively wet conditions.
Powdery Mildew-occurs in times of high humidity. The leaves have a powdery appearance and sometimes curl. Avoid powdery mildew by providing plenty of air circulation between the plants. Try to limit overhead watering and very wet conditions.
Downy Mildew-is a fungal disease in which the foliage has a white or gray fuzzy surface. To evade this problem avoid overhead watering, leave good air space between plants and rotate crops of different families.
Harvesting and Storage
Harvest the foliage as needed throughout the growing season. It is a good idea to cut the day’s requirements in the morning after the morning moisture has dried. Store the cut foliage like a bouquet in a container of water.
Long Term Storage
This is a delicate herb best used fresh. However, you can successfully freeze foliage in water in ice cube trays and also in butter. This works well in soup, stocks, and sauces and extends the season of use. Chervil also makes a flavorful. and delicate vinegar.
Chervil will help you create meals, both memorable and healthy; it provides vitamin C, carotene, iron, and magnesium. It is a source of bioflavonoids. Chervil offers a unique source of flavor with few calories. In its outdoor season, you can use it in many dishes.
Chervil’s Place In French Cooking
Chervil, like parsley and tarragon, is a vital flavor element in French cuisine. It is a star in the bearnaise sauce we love on steak. What is the reason? The French palate, historically, has an appreciation for anise flavor. Bronze Fennel and tarragon will provide an anise-like taste. This taste, you can find in other herbs, but the flavor note is bolder. Only chervil has the delicate anise-like element, and that is the reason for its popularity.
Culinary Herbs-List and chart with links to specific herbs