Herb of the Month – Tarragon

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.

Cultivation

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.

Using Tarragon

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!

Recipes

Tarragon Orange Chicken

Tarragon Vinegar

Sauce Béarnaise

Mushrooms marinated with Tarragon vinegar

See also recipes using Fines herbes

This entry was posted in Food Culture, May - Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Herb of the Month – Tarragon

  1. Azazello says:

    A lot of misinformation.
    French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa Besser—sativa a misnomer in itself as it cannot be seeded) is not native to Southern Europe as it is a clonally propagated sterile tetraploid cultivar of uncertain origin that popped out of nowhere in medieval times. Russian or Wild Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L. and NOT dracunculoides–the origin of that taxonomic mess is a longer story) is native to the Northern hemisphere and had been used medicinally but not as an herb as it is distinctly different in its chemical constitution.
    Oh, the Internet

    • Suzanne Wynn says:

      Thank you for your comment. The beauty of the internet is that the written word can readily be challenged and that knowledge and expertise can be pooled. My herb guru is Jekka McVicar, so I will forward your comments to her to see whether she has anything to add.

    • True French Tarragon is Artemisia dracunculus which does set flower and seed in the Mediterranean region It was found in S. Europe in 1548 .This information is readily available from the RHS Dictionary of Gardening Vol1 A-COCC. I have never heard of Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa Besser—sativa please could you elaborate. Regarding Russian Tarragon the current RHS data base on the nomenclature of plants has it now as Artemisia dracunculus Russian.
      All this material is from books.

Leave a Reply to Suzanne Wynn Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.