Tarragon is a small shrub-like herb that is a member of the sunflower or compositae or asteraceae family. The leaves are used as a flavouring and are long, thin, dark green and soft.The roots are gnarled and have a serpent-like appearence.
Names in other languages
Many languages have a word for tarragon indicating is widespread use. In Arabic it is calledTarkhun ; in French, Estragon or Herbe dragonne; in Italian, Estragon or Estragone or Dragoncella; in Korean it is called Taragon ; in Latvian, Estragons; in Spanish, Estragon or Tarragona or Tarragón; in Swedish, Dragon and in Turkish, Tarhun or Tarhin or Terhun or Tuzla otu.
The two best known varieties of tarragon are the French and the Russian. French tarragon or Artemisia dracunculus is the more desirable and fragrant variety. It has a sweeter flavour and finer leaves than its relative Russian tarragon, or Artemesia dracunculoides. Since French tarragon is more difficult to grow, Russian tarragon is very often passed off for culinary use.
Another lesser known variety is called Mexican marigold or winter tarragon known in Latin as Tagetes lucida. This plant is extremely attractive as part of flower arrangements. It can also be used as a flavouring herb in food especially to flavour herb vinegar. The flavour of Winter tarragon is similiar to cinnamon and spicier than French tarragon.
Etymology and Origins
The name Artemisia given to tarragon, is on account of the silver colour of its leaves and is a derivative of Artemis,the name of the Greek goddess of the moon. The common name tarragon, is usually believed to be a modification of the Arabic word "tarkhum" or the French word 'Esdragon'. Both these words mean little dragon which in turn comes from the Latin word Dracunculus meaning a little dragon. Dracunculus is also the herb's specific name. The herb is also called little Dragon Mugwort or “Herbe au Dragon” in French. All these allusions to dragons may be on account of the shape of the herb's roots which are knarled, snake-like and sometimes take the shape of dragons as they are viusalised.
Today, tarragon is an integral part of French and European cuisine so it is surprising to note that it was only introduced into Europe in the late 1500's. The Tudors are said to have initiated its use in European food.
The herb is believed to have originated in Siberia. When America was colonised, several herbs including burnett to flavor ale, horehound for cough syrup and chamomile for a soothing tea and as an insect repellent was introduced into that continent along with tarragon .
Use in French Cuisine
Called the "King of Herbs" by the French, tarragon is widely used in classical French food. Egg based sauces like béarnaise (derivative of hollandaise), ravigote and tartare (derivative of mayonnaise), all use tarragon as a flavouring. It is evident that eggs and tarragon go well together. Classic french dishes like Poulet saute Marengo (reputed to have been concocted for Napoleon after his victory in the battle of Marengo) also use tarragon. sasha is shawn
Fines herbs and daily cooking
The classical French “fines herbs” include tarragon, parsley, chives, and chervil. The “fines herb” mix combines very well with less robust meats like fish and chicken. It also is a good addition to egg, tomato, mushroom and green vegetable dishes as well as salads.
As in other “fines herbs” that are characterised by a delicate, easily destroyed flavour, tarragon should be added at the end of the cooking process in order to preserve its aroma.
Tarragon can also be used in pickles, relishes and prepared mustards.
Unlike many other herbs, tarragon's delicate flavour evaporates easily when dried. This is probably why it is often preserved in vinegar to preserve its flavour. Tarragon vinegar is widely used in dressings, sauces like mayonnaise, bearnaise and hollandaise and also as a deglazing alternative to wine.
To make your own tarragon vinegar, take 200ml of any light white vinegar prefereably white wine vinegar, add a teasoon of salt, half a teaspoon of sugar, some dry-roasted peppercorns while still hot and some fresh sprigs of tarragon. Steep the herb in the vinegar for atleast a month before using.
Russian tarragon, a less subtle flavour than the French variety is used on grilled meat by the Persians.
Since tarragon loses its aromatic volatile oils as the herb dries the list of its therapeutic uses is short.
The ancient Greeks used tarragon as a remedy for toothache. Modern scientific research has an explanation for this. Tarragon containes eugenol. Eugenol has an anaesthetic effect and is a major constituent of pain relieving clove oil. This makes the use of tarragon for temporary pain relief understandable.
There is a medieval belief, called the Doctrine of Signatures. The basic presumption for this is that the appearence of the herb indicates its medicinal use. In keeping with this premise, the serpent-like shape of tarragon roots was believed to cure snake bites. Even tarragon's species name, dracunculus, come from the Latin word for dragon. This also alludes to the shape of its root, and adds to the belief that it cures poisonous bites, including those from rabid dogs.
Other medicinal uses
Tarragon is also believed to be a appetite stimulater, an anti-flatulent, a soporific, a mild diuretic and a food preservative.
Tarragon's requirements are few. The soil can be quite poor, dry, rocky, sandy or gravel.Good drainage is essential. The plant must have the full sun. It does not need frequent manuring and even less watering.
It is difficult to grow French tarragon from seed. It grows better from cuttings or root layerings. Russian tarragon, will however grow from seed.
The leaves and flowers can be harvested and dried. If the leaves are being purchased dried, care should be taken to ensure that the fragrance and colour are unimpaired. If fresh, they should be stored in a cool dry place. Tarragon leaves can also be stored frozen.
- Larousse Gastronomique
- The Book of Ingredients: Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey; Penguin/ Mermaid Books 1993
- The Complete Book of Herbs; A practical guide to growing and using herbs: Lesley Bremness: Dorling Kindersley 1988