This delicate anise flavoured herb is one of the most beguiling and enchanting of the culinary herbs. Unfortunately, it is also widely misidentified and misunderstood. The herb is particularly esteemed in France where is is known as estragon, or little dragon. Going further back, tarragon's etymology is broadened by the Arabic tarkhum, or dragon. The Serpent theme is explained by the herb's once supposed curative properties for snakebite.
There are three main varieties of tarragon; French or true tarragon, Russian tarragon and winter tarragon.
French tarragon Artemisia dracunculus is the most revered variety of tarragon. It is a small perennial growing to a height of 90 cm (36 in) with slender, deep green leaves. French tarragon bears tiny yellow buds that rarely develop into flowers and if they do set seed, they are almost alway sterile. As a consequence, most French tarragon is grown by root splitting or propagation. This variety has the deepest flavour and aroma of the tarragons, with a delightfully piquant licorice taste. If you are buying the herb for the kitchen, insist on this variety.
Russian tarragon A. dracunculoides is by comparison a much larger plant, growing to almost twice the height of French tarragon. It has large, slender, pale green leaves and small yellow flowers that will go to seed. This variety lacks much of the flavour and aroma that is sought out in French tarragon.
Winter tarragon Tagetes lucida bears a strong resemblance to French tarragon, with tightly packed, deep green foliage and small yellow flowers. This variety has a stong aniseed aroma, but a disappointingly shallow flavour. Due to winter tarragon's similarity to French tarragon and it's ability to be grown from seed, it is often passed off as true tarragon. Avoid this if possible by tasting a leaf. It should have a vivid, almost overpowering anise flavour. If it is lacking in flavour, try another greengrocer.
In the kitchen, tarragon has a natual affinity with seafood, poultry and egg dishes. It is one of the major flavour components of the French blend fines herbes and is the basis of a classical sauce bearnaise. It is also widely used as a flavouring for vinegar. This is very simple to make at home. Just place 2 or 3 stalks of French tarragon into a bottle of good quality white wine vinegar, recap tightly and store at room temperature, out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks. This will keep well for at least a year allowing you to add a tarragon hit to your dish with ease.
Here is a recipe for a tarragon and wine essence, which is the true basis for a bearnaise sauce, but can be added to all sorts of dishes to add a lively aniseed flavoured kick. Try using it to deglaze a frypan that has been used to cook fish or chicken, then swirl in a nut of butter to give it a nice gloss. You now have a 2 minute, tasty sauce that will lift your dinner to even greater heights.
500 ml (2 cups) white wine
250 ml (1 cup) white wine vinegar
2 shallots, peeled and sliced (Not green onions, but true French shallots)
1 bunch French tarragon, chopped
6 black peppercorns
2 Tbs butter
Melt the butter in a saucepan and gently fry the shallots, tarragon and peppercorns for 3 minutes. Add the wine and vinegar and increase the heat slightly. Let the mixture bubble away until it has reduced to half the original volume, leaving you with roughly 375 ml (1 1/2 cups). pour into a container, cool and refrigerate. Lasts well for 6 months.