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Chervil and angelica

(article, Deborah Madison)

After posting my piece on lovage, I noticed an enormous plant, a kind of super-lovage, growing at a local nursery. I guessed it was angelica. The main stalks were as big as my arm and much heftier than even my largest lovage plant.

“Is that angelica?” I asked the nursery owner, Bob Pennington. “How did you get it so big?”  

“How can I not?” Pennington queried back. “It just grows!”

Unlike Pennington — and unlike Linda Ziedrich in Oregon — I’ve had a hard time with angelica in New Mexico, so I looked where it was growing: in full sun and against a building. Mine was in the shade. Perhaps that’s why it had failed to thrive. 

[%image "deborah's angelica" float=left width=300 caption="Angelica can be a beautiful, vigorous plant in the right conditions."] 

On the other hand, my herb book says that angelica likes streams and marshes, moist meadows, and mountain brooks. Apparently it also likes the high desert in full sun. What an accommodating plant!

So, what about angelica? It’s similar to lovage with its hollow stalks, its aromatic celery-parsley-like leaves that are even larger than lovage leaves, and its umbelled seed head that bursts into a fireworks of tiny blossoms, just as lovage, parsley, and other umbellifers do. 

I hear it can get remarkably tall — up to 8 feet, which is outstanding for an herb. It’s a beautiful, vigorous plant that is mostly known for its healing properties, but it has some magical culinary properties: the roots and seeds are used to flavor such green herbal liquors as Charteuse and Benedictine. 

The stem, however, is often candied in syrup (a little baking soda preserves the green color), then used as a decorative but flavorful candy in all kinds of French desserts. I love candied angelica for its subtle pine flavor, although it can sometimes read more like licorice. 

Candying your own is a somewhat complicated process (and demands that you have at least a two-year old plant); it is described in Larousse Gastronomique in case you’re game. I always seek it in France, and you can buy it online at Market Hall Foods. It’s an expensive but quite wonderful ingredient.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Chervil is lovely paired with its relative the carrot."]

While angelica is no doubt the largest of the umbellifers, chervil is the tiniest and most delicate member of that family. I adore chervil and would love to be able to use handfuls of it in the kitchen, but it truly doesn’t care much for the desert sun and dryness. I grow a little each spring and it has only a few fleeting moments before it dries up. 

Where I saw it thriving recently was in Tulsa, at the Philbrook Museum, where it was growing vigorously in densely planted pots. There the chervil was being used in what was a very formal, albeit edible, garden planted in lettuces, leeks, beets, chard, and herbs.

The chervil leaf is a miniature, almost frilly version of a carrot leaf or even parsley, but it packs the big warm taste of anise or licorice. It needs to be used fresh — in salads, in herb mixtures, added to soups at the last minute, with eggs, with fish. It’s lovely paired with its relative the carrot, and its pretty sprigs garnish any open-faced sandwich or stuffed egg with style, charm, and of course flavor.  

While recipe books often call for parsley or chervil, they are hardly the same. Parsley has a clean, bracing flavor, but chervil is something else altogether — lacy and delicate, with woven, complex flavor. Try it just plucked and tossed in a salad; you want to surprise the mouth.

If you live in a cool, damp, shady place, chervil should be worth a try. It doesn’t require a lot of sun, but it likes rich soil. And you’ll like it.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

deborah's angelica, l

reference-image, l