Artemisia dracunculus although a native of southern Europe is almost universally called French Tarragon – apart from in Germany, where they call it German Tarragon! I’m not sure when exactly it first became known as French Tarragon, but it is a flavour so inextricably linked with that country that it would be unthinkable to attempt much French cooking without it. I love the way that one herb can so readily epitomise a whole nation’s cuisine, and whilst it is undoubtedly true that it is used more in some parts of the country than others, Tarragon Chicken would shout France to most foreigners.
The Latin name dracunculus means little dragon and there are several theories as to why, but the one that rings most true for me it that it refers to the strength of flavour. It is rather a love it or hate it herb, and it needs to be used with discretion. One story has it that Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon for her reckless use of the herb!
In an earlier article I referred to the quartet of herbs known in French as fines herbes, of which Tarragon is the last in the year to make its appearance. At last you can use this wonderful blend of chervil, parsley, chives and tarragon. The proportions of each herb are certainly not equal, otherwise Tarragon would be far too dominant – you need at least double the amount of each of the other herbs, i.e. Tarragon accounts for no more than one seventh of the final blend. Both Chervil and Tarragon lend an aniseed flavour, and although the blend of fines herbes is nearly always cooked, if I am considering its individual constituents I would say that the more delicate aniseed flavour of Chervil is the one I would eat raw, for example in salads, whilst the far more powerful Tarragon I reserve for cooking.
You may occasionally see the fines herbes blend dried. Don’t go there for a second! The volatile essential oils contained in most herbs are lost when dried (the only two exceptions being bay and oregano) and dried herbs, like stock cubes, have a musty flavour that becomes the predominant taste whenever they are used. If you want to preserve Tarragon, the best way to do so is by using it to flavour vinegar (see recipes) or, at a pinch, you could freeze it.
It is well worth growing your own Tarragon because it’s not that widely sold. French Tarragon cannot be grown from seed and instead needs to be propagated by dividing the roots. Take care when buying your original plant to ensure that it is Artemisia dracunculus rather than A. dracunculoides. This related plant, commonly known as Russian Tarragon, originates from Siberia and is therefore much hardier, and does seed in this climate. However, whilst easier to grow, it is a very poor relation in terms of taste. If the plant is described only as Tarragon it is likely to be the Russian variety, the leaves are coarser and slightly serrated, and a quick taste will reveal that the flavour is nothing like as pronounced as in French Tarragon, it is instead slightly acrid.
Having ensured that you have planted the French variety, it is best to divide the plant every couple of years to keep it healthy and at its optimum flavour wise. To do this you need to dig up the underground runners in spring (you will see the first growth around the end of April). Separate the roots by pulling gently apart – you will see little white growing nodules. Place each of these in a separate pot and cover with compost. Grow on in the greenhouse until they are well-rooted and then plant out in the summer. Water just sufficiently to keep the soil from drying out, but avoid over-watering.
The best flavour will come from leaves harvested in early summer, before mid-day, so this is the time to make your Tarragon Vinegar.
In addition to being a classic partner for chicken, Tarragon is good with mushrooms, tomatoes and fish. As a constituent of fines herbes it also makes many classic French sauces, such as Bearnaise for serving with steak and is ideal in many egg dishes.
Whilst there is no universally accepted definition of what makes a plant a herb, it is generally agreed that they are “useful” plants, the use having originally mainly been medicinal. However whatever medicinal properties Tarragon was once thought to have had (curing snake bites for example) they now seem largely irrelevant, but French Tarragon is right up there in any cook’s top 10 culinary flavourings. And whilst culturally it is far more associated with France than the UK, the ingredients it complements are widely used here, so let’s embrace the herb too!
Tarragon Orange Chicken
Mushrooms marinated with Tarragon vinegar
See also recipes using Fines herbes