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Cherchez La Chervil, the Forgotten Herb

Chervil came into my life about 15 years ago, when I was college student studying in Lyon, France. My culinary experiences there, given my youth, were many (7-franc bottles of wine and bread with no wrapper) and often shocking (poached eggs on pizzas and stores selling horseburgers).

I noticed other things. Whether or not the label disclosed the fact, anything chocolate included hazelnuts. Also, ham was inescapable, a real challenge to a borderline vegetarian like myself. Another omnipresent ingredient was fines herbes, a blend of dried chervil, chives, tarragon and parsley.

I'd heard of chives and parsley, of course, and tarragon sounded vaguely familiar. But chervil was new to me. How did it figure into the popular blend found in salad dressings, soup mixes and spreadable cheeses?

Chervil's subtle flavor, which primarily features anise aromas, seems a bit under the American radar. But in France, chervil is venerated in two forms: the dried version and the fresh greens that proliferate in the spring.

Still, even the lacy leaves generally are relegated to one-of-a-group status. The well-known "mesclun" salad mix — a Provencal blend that went through an American boom in the 1990s — traditionally includes chervil, arugula, lettuce and endive.

Another French standard that depends on the distinctive, licorice-lemon flavor of chervil is the Bernaise sauce often served with meat, poultry or vegetables. It is made of eggs, butter, white wine vinegar, chervil, tarragon and shallots.

A spring herb, chervil is an obvious choice to accent other seasonal favorites such as salmon or trout, asparagus, new potatoes, baby carrots and salads of baby greens. When using chervil as a flavor enhancer, it should be added right before serving. High heat ruins its flavor.

Chervil looks a lot like its parsley cousin. It also is related to the so-called turnip-rooted chervil, which is rare in the United States and eaten as a root vegetable in the fall.

A hearty annual, chervil is simple to grow. Many farmers markets and gourmet supermarkets stock the herb year-round.

The numerous names and different types of chervil undoubtedly lead to confusion among home cooks. The fresh leaves also are called cicily, sweet cicily, gourmet's parsley, French parsley and, in France, cerfeuil. The dried version is found in more products, but the fresh greens have far better flavor and more versatility.

Even before the French, the Romans enjoyed "the herb of rejoicing" (as it is translated from the Greek) after it was brought to them from the Russian Caucasus region. Not only was it used in culinary preparations, notably by the 1st-century scholar Pliny, it was thought to have diuretic, stimulating and "blood-purifying" properties. Even today, a tea brewed of chervil is recommended as both an eye wash and an aid for menstrual cramps.

When I left France, I stuffed several jars of fines herbes and herbes de Provence into my suitcases, believing I might never come across them on this side of the Atlantic. There they were, of course, on the spice shelf at my local grocery store.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marion Barnes
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