That subtle, tender flavor-part anise, part parsley-that you’ve been trying to identify in the fish sauce, will almost certainly turn out to be chervil, the most retiring of the sister spices that make up the fines herbes of French cuisine, but one that’s good company and not to be overlooked.
Chervil is a member of the Carrot family and its leaves highly resemble carrot tops. The young green leaves, which smell similar to Anise, are collected before they lose their pungency and often preserved in vinegar.
Chervil is a warm herb. Its taste and fragrance fill the senses the way warmth does, slowly, subtly. You notice chervil in the background, and you are glad to find it there because its flavour and fragrance are themselves warm and cheering.
What to look for:
The plant, which can grow up to 2 feet (60 cm) tall, thrives in shady places and cool conditions, but won’t survive winters in northern climates. It bolts easily in heat, unfortunately, and will go to seed, so you need to pinch off the tops as it attempts to form buds to flower.
How Mother Nature loves it:
Chervil grows well in pots: all it needs is moderately rich soil, moisture, good drainage, and a sunny situation. It is an annual that bolts easily, so it is probably wise to start a new plant fairly often (chervil matures quickly–in 6 weeks under ideal conditions). Scatter a few seeds on the soil surface, leaving them uncovered (or perhaps under a trace of sifted soil), keep the soil moist, and wait. (If planting outdoors, direct-seed where you want it, because chervil does not take to being transplanted.) Note that chervil seed has a life expectancy of a year or so at most: don’t try to save leftovers from season to season.
How to use it:
Chervil is native to Eastern Europe, the colonizing Romans spreading it further afield. It was once called ‘myrrhis’ because the volatile oil extracted from chervil leaves bears a similar aroma to the biblical resinous substance ‘myrrh’. Folklore has it that chervil makes one merry, sharpens the wit, bestows youth upon the aged and symbolizes sincerity.
Its flavour and fragrance resemble the myrrh brought by the wise men to the baby Jesus. Because of this and because chervil symbolized new life, it is linked to the Easter celebration in parts of Europe where its is traditional to serve chervil soup on Holy Thursday .
Subtlety is key when using chervil in cooking. Although chervil will never dominate a dish, many cooks use it to enhance the flavours of other herbs accompanying it in recipes. Chervil is an important inclusion in the traditional French fines herbes blend of tarragon, parsley, chives and chervil. Chervil complements scrambled eggs and omelets, cream cheese and herb sandwiches, salads and even mashed potatoes.