Chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, can be cultivated for most of the year, although, unlike most herbs, it does not like hot sunny weather and at such times quickly bursts into flower and then runs to seed. Why have I chosen February to feature it? Well, predominantly because of its association with Lent – it is thought to have blood cleansing and restorative properties that classified it as a “Lenten Herb”, eaten throughout the period and especially in the form of a soup on Maundy Thursday. But also because it makes a refreshing change to the other woody perennials that we consider winter herbs.
Chervil is usually classified as a hardy annual although some consider it biennial, and by making a late sowing towards the end of summer (end of July/early August) you should have a worthwhile supply throughout the winter and into the spring when you can begin sowing again. The seeds themselves do not keep well, so buy fresh each year. This has probably been the reason for failures I have experienced in germination and it is frustrating to waste time waiting for a sowing to materialise before eventually realising that you need to make another. So sew seed in late summer and then again in the spring once the soil has warmed up – directly into the growing position as it does not like being transplanted.
Which growing position? The good news is that this herb is one of only a few that likes the shade. You may want to use a cloche to warm the ground before the first sewing of the year, and to cover it in the harshest weathers, although mine has survived this mild winter without any cover. It may also be grown in outdoor pots or window boxes (provided they are not south facing).
Chervil seems to be grown in Britain most often as part of a pre-mixed salad selection. Until these really took off it had become quite rare here, although remaining very popular in France. The flavour is mild aniseed, and indeed as a component of a green salad is my favourite way of eating it. In France it is one of the indispensible collection known as “fines herbes” – the others being parsley, chives and tarragon. Although both tarragon and chervil have an aniseed flavour, chervil is much milder, hence you can eat large quantities raw. Whilst its flavour is never dominant in the blend, it does seem to bring out the best of the other herbs. But before you can use this collection, you will have to wait for tarragon to make its appearance, which won’t be until April. Fines herbes are often used with eggs (see omelette fines herbes) or are good chopped into butter for coating vegetables such as broad beans. Sauce Gribiche is my favourites egg/fines herbes combination. This is a cold, mayonnaise based sauce, which also has cooked egg white, gherkins and capers folded into it – a variation on Tartare Sauce for fish but more often eaten with Charcuterie. Try it with my Breaded Sweetbreads recipe.
Chervil was almost certainly introduced into Britain by the Romans and is now found wild in the form of Anthiscus sylvestris, commonly known as Cow Parsley, and one of the earliest of the flowering umbellifers to appear each year. The flavour of the wild version is however inferior to the cultivated, and, because there is also a danger of confusing it with poisonous Hemlock, it is safer to cultivate. It is a member of the carrot family, and the two marry well in a soup, better, I think, than the more usual pairing of carrot with coriander.
Apart of Chervil Soup, it is rare to find recipes where this is the dominant flavour. The flavour is quickly diminished in cooking and therefore it is best added just before serving. So my version of Chervil Soup is really just a base of leek and potato, with a generous quantity of chopped chervil added at the end of cooking – see Green Soups.
In addition to the cleansing and purifying properties already mentioned, Chervil is credited with a host of medicinal properties – an infusion is suggested for circulatory disorders, liver complaints and chronic catarrh and the fresh leaves can be applied to aching joints in a warm poultice.