Add Flavour and Nutrition to Your Soups and Salads Using Chervil
Grow chervil in a cool, moist location for the best results
Try growing some chervil to spice up your soups, stews, and salads
Herbs are a fascinating group of plants, no less so because they are hard to pin down as a group. Herbaceous plants, technically speaking, include all the leafy plants; “herbaceous perennials” is a narrower category of leafy plants that die back (usually) every year and regrow the next year (with luck).
The plants’ need to grow and reproduce is the driving force behind the flavours, aromas and essential oils that paradoxically make herbs attractive to us. The very mechanisms plants evolved to deter one set of predators has made them targets for human predation and cultivation. In a way, it is a good strategy for evolutionary success – we grow them, water, fertilize and weed them, and we fend off other predators.
Importantly, we also propagate them, spreading favoured varieties around the world by seed, division and cuttings, and guaranteeing the plant’s immortality. It has been speculated that plants invented people so that they could travel – and travel they do.
Annuals, Biennials, and Perennials
Some herbs are annuals, others are biennials, and a large number are either tender or hardy perennials. Each of these four lifestyle categories contains many plants that are simple and easy to grow in the home garden or in a container, and all add beauty as well as fresh healthy flavour to many different dishes. The easiest category to grow is annuals.
Many familiar herbs are annuals – growing, flowering and setting seed in one year. They are prolific self-seeders, and it is no surprise that it is the seeds of many of these varieties, such as dill and coriander, that we often cultivate them for. Others are planted for foliage or roots.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium, in the Apiaceae family) is native to the Caucasus region of Russia, but was spread by the Romans several thousand years ago and has now naturalized throughout most of Europe. It is, not surprisingly given its enthusiasm, easy to grow. Northern gardeners can start it inside in early to mid April and transplant it outside with care (and as little root disturbance as possible) while it is still young. Southern gardeners can sow it directly in place in the garden at about the same time.
Chervil is a taprooted annual grown for tangy foliage very similar in appearance to parsley, but with a bite. A related species, root chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum) is grown for a bulbous root that imparts the same sharp licorice or aniseed flavour to soups and stews. Although less common in today’s seed catalogues, it was selected and saved over the centuries for the simple reason that the root stores well and is useful for adding flavour and nutrition to many dishes throughout the winter, unlike the seasonal green foliage.
Freshly harvested foliage of common chervil is best used within a few days, although freezing small quantities into water in ice-cube trays makes it possible to save serving-sized amounts, and traditionally it was preserved in vinegar, as were many herbs. It doesn’t hold flavour well when dried, but is still better than none at all.
Like many annuals, either species of chervil can bolt (flower and set seed more quickly than what the gardener wants) if the weather gets hot – a problem even in short-season northern summers. Planting it in a cool moist location helps to keep growth slow and steady; southern gardeners have the luxury of a long-enough season to make succession planting feasible.
How To Use Chervil
Grow chervil as an addition to salads or sandwiches, and as an ingredient for a more complex cooked dish. Or simply plant it in your mixed garden to attract beneficial insects. The fresh green foliage and umbels of tiny white flowers of either variety make for an attractive garden or container plant and an easy way to get growing with herbs.