The forgotten herb

I’d forgotten about chervil. Perhaps that’s its fate: chervil may be known in some circles as gourmet herb, but it’s not something you’ll find on a supermarket shelf or alongside its cousin, parsley, on the average garden centre bench.

Thankfully, chervil hadn’t forgotten me. My lax attitude to deadheading means it self-seeded here and there in shady corners, just in time for autumn picking.

Chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, is a fine-looking thing – like a pale, lacy version of parsley with dainty, white flowers – and pretty enough for any garden. The flavour is subtle – a hint of parsley and tarragon, laced with a few drops of Pernod. This herb works only fresh and raw (or, at most, only briefly exposed to heat); it is no good dried or frozen. If you must try to preserve it, do so in a very good white-wine vinegar.

In France, chervil is one of the fines herbes (along with tarragon, parsley and chives) that elevate plain eggs into an omelette fit for fine dining; it also sits happily with white fish, is divine in an autumn herb salad and works well added to soups and stews at the end of cooking. Once it gets growing in autumn, I regularly use it instead of parsley.

Chervil doesn’t much like heat or sun. When sown for summer use, if it sees even half an hour more afternoon sun than it thinks fit, it runs straight to seed in protest. Unless you can offer a particularly damp and shady spot, wait to sow until early autumn, by which I mean right now. The soil is warm and wet, there is still enough sun to awaken it from its sleepy start, but it is not so strong as to upset it.

Although chervil is from the umbel family, its seed looks nothing like that of parsley or carrot; instead, it comes in thin, dark strands. I like to sow in both containers and direct into the ground, thinning to around 15-20cm apart. It prefers rich, but well-drained soil, so add well-rotted, homemade compost if necessary.

To overwinter well, chervil needs a sheltered spot that’s warmed by afternoon suns. In the UK, in a mild winter, particularly down south, it should need no protection, but rather than risk losses, a cloche or fleece will ensure it remains in growth. If you are growing it in a pot, use a “long tom” with a good depth (at least 15cm), because chervil has a long, thin taproot and resents hitting the base of the container. The lee of a sheltered wall, up against the house or in a cold frame or cool porch should all keep the plants warm enough.

And when it does decide to flower in spring, let it do so. As a happy self-seeder, the places it chooses always produce the healthiest plants.

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3 thoughts on “The forgotten herb”

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