Jane McLeod: Touting tarragon

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For centuries, herbs were regarded as essential to daily life.

But the custom of growing herbs for culinary use largely died out by the mid-19th century, and soon after, knowledge about using herbs in cooking declined as convenience foods and table condiments increased in popularity.

In some countries, such as France and Italy, the use of herbs in cooking never has ceased. If you have an interest in the culinary arts and all things natural, fresh herbs have been enjoying a lengthy revival because herbs used judiciously enhance the flavor of almost any dish.

Everyone’s No. 1 culinary herb is different, but French tarragon, with its distinctive flavor, is one of the best herbs for savory cooking and no herb collection should be without it. It is important to note that there are two kinds of tarragon: French and Russian. The Russian kind of tarragon is known as false tarragon and has a greatly inferior flavor.

French tarragon is a tall plant, growing to 2 feet with glossy, narrow, dark-green leaves. The stem is ridged and round, with a light-green color. The plant becomes naturally brown and brittle near the base. It also has tiny, ball-shaped, greenish-white flowers that only open properly in a very warm climate. The plant itself has little or no scent, but there are oil glands on the underside of the leaves that, when handled, release a bittersweet, peppery flavor with an undertone of anise. Dried tarragon leaves unfortunately retain little flavor.

Tarragon loves sunny, dry weather and needs to be grown in well-drained, rich soil. It is a hardy perennial that should be cut back in late autumn and can survive local winters with minimal protection from mulch. French tarragon cannot be propagated by seed, but rather, by cuttings and root division.

The origins of tarragon are uncertain — maybe Siberia — but certainly lie somewhere in central Asia. The Moors first introduced the herb to Spain, but it remained undiscovered by the rest of Europe until the mid-16th century. The French came to love and use it the most, naming it the “king of herbs.” The Moors called tarragon “tharkoum,” and the French and English names may be a corruption of that name. Tarragon’s modern name also could have come from the Latin “dranunculus,” which means “little dragon” and could describe tarragon’s fiery tang, the way the roots curl back on themselves like a dragon’s tail, or even the herb’s mythical use: curing the bites of venomous beasts.

To be connected with dragons is an honor worthy of this aristocratic herb, but today, tarragon’s primary use is culinary, adding savory flavor to a limitless number of dishes. The best way to learn about cooking with an herb is to try out recipes that call for only a single herb, so you become familiar with its characteristics and the foods it enhances.

From there, let your creativity take wing.

Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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