You may be unfamiliar with chervil, but chef Rob Weland is a huge fan. He grows chervil (among others things) in the organic garden of his unique Washington, DC restaurant, the Poste Moderne Brasserie. Chervil is one of the fines herbes* of French cuisine, although chervil isn't native to France. Empire-building Romans brought this savory herb to central Europe from its origin farther east. The plant looks like a dainty variety of its cousins, parsley and carrot. Chervil leaves have a fennel or tarragon-like flavor. Chopped fresh chervil leaves can be tossed in salads or used in mild dishes with other delicately flavored herbs. However, fresh chervil is hard to find in the produce market, and dried chervil doesn't bring much of its distinctive character to the table. To really enjoy chervil, you may have to grow it yourself.
Think herb growing = heat? Think again
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) was born and bred in a mountainous region. It is a short lived annual, a lover of cool weather and good candidate for less than full sun. To grow chervil, choose a reliably moist garden spot with somewhat organic soil and a partly shaded exposure. Chervil objects to transplantation, and is only grown from seed. You may want to think of chervil as a "permanent annual." It grows quickly and blooms, then drops seeds which renew the planting for the following season. Sow chervil seed in early spring, a mere quarter of an inch deep, and watch for ferny parsleylike leaves growing to about twelve inches. Chervil likes cool weather and long nights; summer's opposite signals chervil to flower. Once flowers form, the flavor in the leaves declines and the plant will soon make seed and die off. Chervil is more reliable as a fall crop in the moderate and hot planting zones. You may allow some spring chervil to go to seed, or sow chervil again in fall. It is fairly hardy and can persist through the winter before bolting in spring.
Cultivated chervil's naughty cousins
Culinary chervil has a few kissing cousins whose bad manners have already earned them a reputation in the gardener's journal. In cooler parts of North America, wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) has become a pestilential weed. Wild chervil is frequently called "cow parsley." The name conjures up (appropriately)an image of a bovine-serving-size version of the garden variety herb. Cow parsley is a large, agressively self sowing annual-- think "chervil on steroids." It's invasive in Iceland and becoming a nuisance on cultivated or previously farmed land across Europe. However, it IS edible. (Be sure you've correctly identified any wild plant before tasting it.) Wild chervil might even be considered pretty, with its "Queen Anne's lace" style flowerheads. This species' extreme skill at planting itself should be a huge warning sign to anyone who considers bringing wild chervil to a garden setting. Bur (or burr) chervil is another wild plant that may be familiar in warmer temperate zones. It also bears the trademark carroty chervil foliage but seems more subdued in looks and habit, with fewer flowers than wild chervil.
Chervil in the kitchen
Chervil grows quickly. As soon as you can gather a handful of chervil leaves, you might as well do so and get into the kitchen. With roughly equal parts of minced chives, parsley and tarragon, you now have "fines herbes." Think of light, fresh recipes as clues to chervil combinations. Recipe sites often name salads, cream sauces, cheese combinations, and herbed butters as ways to use chervil. Julia Child herself suggests minced chervil (or parsley, chives, tarragon or dill) as an herbal addition to simply delicious scrambled eggs. Béarnaise sauce ("Hollandaise with herbs") owes its distinction to chervil. Consider chervill added to split pea soup, or incorporated in a creamy dip.
Chervil seed is likely NOT included in the seed rack at your local garden center. Sources of chervil seed are listed at this link, courtesy of Dave's Garden PlantScout. Don't even look for nursery starts because chervil does not transplant well. Grow it from seed only.
Above, a chervil leaf, photo by subscriber green76thumb and contributed to PlantFiles, used here with permission. (Thank you!)
q'est ce que c'est (pronounced KESS kuh SAY): a French phrase meaning "what is it?"
cerfeuil: the French term for chervil (don't ask me how to pronounce that!)
*fines herbes: mixtures of equal amounts of parsley, chervil, chives and tarragon, minced and added to dishes shortly before serving
Chervil makes a comeback, Nation's Restaurant News, (1-19-2011) http://www.nrn.com/article/chervil-makes-comeback
Egg recipes at La Belle Cuisine http://labellecuisine.com/Archives/Breakfast/Eggs%20by%20Julia.htm
Chervil, Encyclopedia of spices, (2006) The Epicentre, http://www.theepicentre.com/Spices/chervil.html , accessed March 24, 2011
Magnússon, Sigurður H., NOBANIS -Invasive Alien Species Fact Sheet, Anthriscus sylvestris Icelandic Institute of Natural History (22-08-2007) http://www.nobanis.org/files/factsheets/Anthriscus_sylvestris.pdf, accessed March 25, 2011.