LIKE SNOWDROPS AND CROCUSES, garden chives push through barely thawed earth with almost alarming vigor. More than most herbs, chives demand that we use them: The plants respond to regular beheadings by redoubling their efforts, producing slender dark green leaves from early spring until long after the first fall frost.
The bulbous, bright green clumps of mature chives require periodic division to thrive, like daffodils. Hapless gardeners must find new homes for their drawn-and-quartered chives—they’ll be foisted off on family and friends who, in turn, will dutifully snip away and repeat the cycle all over again.
Allium schoenoprasum gives new meaning to the term “hardy perennial.” A close cousin of garlic, shallots, leeks and scallions, chives are the only allium native to both the Old and New Worlds. Bees love them; chive flowers present early, when few other plants are blossoming, so they serve as a kind of hors d’oeuvre for pollinators. (There is nothing quite as entertaining as watching a bumble bee bob precariously on a chive blossom as it sucks nectar.)
Chives entice, but they also repel. There are widespread claims among gardeners that when planted near roses they prevent black spot and deter aphids and Japanese beetles. Orchardists plant chives among apple trees to control apple scab. Because chives have a naturally high sulfur content, chive tea applied to cucumbers and gooseberries is said to prevent powdery mildew and ward off cabbage white butterflies.
Chives can also repel people. “He who has chives on his breath is safe from being kissed to death,” wrote the Roman satirist Martial. The good news for chive lovers is that, more recently, researchers at Ohio State University have found that eating fresh mint leaves, apples or lettuce can solve the problem.
For home cooks, there’s no excuse for not having fresh chives on hand—growing them successfully is kid’s stuff. In fact, raising chives from seed is a favorite elementary school activity, like growing beans in milk cartons. All they require to get up and running is a sunny spot with loose, well-drained soil and adequate water. They’re that easy to grow, really.
Everything chive that grows above ground is edible: leaves, scapes, buds and flowers. The faded flowers scatter their seeds with abandon, so it’s a good idea to eat them before they do this—given half a chance, they will take over your garden, though they’re just as happy confined to pots or window boxes. The Old Farmer’s Almanac website (almanac.com) includes a marvelous thread, kept going by chive enthusiasts, that suggests dividing clumps every three or four years. This is when having a large, extended family comes in handy.
Chives are one fourth of the classical quartet known in French cooking as fines herbes. In Recipes From a French Herb Garden (Simon & Schuster, 1989; $34.95 hardcover), the English food writer Geraldene Holt extols chives as “quite distinctive and superior” in flavor to other members of the onion family. Noting their affinity with eggs and cream, she calls for chives in resolutely French dishes: boudin blanc seasoned with chives and parsley; Dover sole coddled with chive butter and bread crumbs; clams stuffed with almonds, chives and parsley; Cantal-laced brioche spread with chive butter; hot parsley mousse cloaked in chive cream; and snow peas sautéed with shredded butterhead lettuce, chives, scallions and mint.
On the other hand, un-haute chives neatly snipped into tiny rounds give a pop of color and a shot of verve to plain baked potatoes, and bring a bit of confetti-like gaiety to scrambled eggs and omelettes. The tufted amethyst blossoms, which make a little can-can show all their own, lend a delicate fragrance and a pretty touch to salads, soups and fish filets.
At The Amsterdam, in Rhinebeck, executive chef Alex Burger is another fan of chives, which, he says, add “a nice depth of flavor that sets them apart from other alliums.” A favorite on his taut dinner menu is a dish of oven-roasted wild mushrooms sautéed with shallots, garlic and sherry, laced with heavy cream and sherry vinegar, crowned with a slow-poached egg and showered with bits and batons of fresh chopped chives. (In the spring, he uses the flowers as a garnish for his bright green arugula-pesto risotto.)
Dan Barber, chef and a co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills, keeps chives in play year ’round. Known for turning unsuspecting root vegetables into things of great beauty, he also produces a special elixir: chive oil. “It adds that green allium flavor that I love so much,” he says. Barber works his alchemy by first freezing grapeseed oil, then blending it with raw chives, sometimes adding a tablet of Vitamin C to keep it “very, very green.” He doesn’t bother to strain the oil. (“I like the sludge for flavor,” he notes.)
Barber uses fresh chives as the French do, too, mingling them with chervil and parsley to strew over “fish, meats and vegetables—everything!” In summer, when chives produce their charming flowers, he even plucks apart the blossom heads. “I use them everywhere,” he says. “I love them with fattier fish, like halibut—I sprinkle individual petals all over the fish.”
Despite his enthusiasm for chives, Barber counsels against too much of a good thing. “The whole thing with chives,” he cautions, “is that you have to tame them.”
If you’d just like to visit some chives, a few historic sites in the Hudson Valley maintain exemplary herb gardens. There is an admission fee to Philipsburg Manor; admission to the grounds of the other sites is free. Montgomery Place Campus at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, has an herb garden based on maps drawn in the 1930s. The John Jay Homestead, in Katonah, features a walled herb garden in the style of a seventeenth-century English knot garden, maintained by the New York Chapter of the Herb Society of America. The grounds of Philipsburg Manor, an active “living museum” in Sleepy Hollow, feature a colonial herb garden that includes more than 80 herbs.