Growing & cooking with French tarragon

French tarragon
French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)

For me, another “must have” fresh herb is  French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus var. sativa)–now.  Until I tasted the French variety fresh, I disliked it intensely.  I simply could not understand why people would rave about it as seasoning for anything.  Dried tarragon was what I tasted first–and threw it out: it was harsh and hay-like.

Then I decided to try the fresh herb–fresh is better, right?  I trundled off to a garden center and bought a “tarragon” plant.  Tarragon is tarragon, right?

That plant grew well, had nice tall, straight stems, but the taste did nothing for me; in fact I thought it was somewhat bitter.  I did realize that sometimes the flavor of herbs varies–just as anything live and growing varies from one to another.  So being somewhat stubborn, I went to a garden center with a larger selection of herbs and I bought another plant…this one labelled as French tarragon–the botanical name was shown on the tag.  (I almost didn’t buy it because while it was nice and green, it was rather straggly looking and it was expensive (compared to other herbs and the first tarragon plant I had bought).  But–I did buy it as it was the only tarragon  there; it grew slowly and was rather weedy looking–not a pretty plant.  When I was finally able to  pick some leaves to use,  that first taste made it obvious to me that this was something different.

I did some research and discovered that there are two kinds of tarragon:  Russian and French.  The Russian can be grown from seed, is a more robust looking plant, cheaper,  and is what you are likely to get if you buy a plant that just called tarragon.  On the other hand, the French tarragon will likely be more expensive, not as sturdy looking, must be started from cuttings or root divisions as it does not produce seeds; it’s also slower growing–but, the flavor is awesome!

The lessons from this?  Don’t bother to buy dried tarragon unless you like the flavor of hay, and don’t buy a tarragon plant unless it’s labelled French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus var. sativa).

Once you get this treasure home, you’ll need to see that it has excellent drainage and lots of sun.  This particular herb has a few idiosyncrasies:   it likes a light, richer soil than other herbs such as  thyme, sage or oregano and while it is a hardy perennial, it actually needs (requires) a cold dormant period.  It will die back to the ground in the fall, but should survive the winter if it is in well-drained soil.

[Note:  If you live where you don't get that kind of cold in the winter you may have trouble growing French tarragon as a perennial; instead of trying the Russian you might want to try Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida) also know as marigold mint.  The flavor of this is slightly sweeter and more licorice-like than French tarragon, but better than the Russian tarragon.]

It may be so slow to show in the spring that you’ll think that it’s not coming back–be patient.  In an extremely hot, humid climate, I’ve found that it does well with about six or eight hours of sunlight and then some shade during the hottest part of the day.  As it is rather slow growing, it may not need dividing for three or four years.

Now that you have this in your herb garden, what can you do with it?  To harvest it for use, you can cut almost anywhere, but don’t take more than half the plant at one time–it needs enough leaves left to have strength to grow back.  By pinching tips you can keep it a bit more bushy–but it’s always going to be a kind of weedy looking herb.

It’s best used as soon as it’s harvested, but it can be stored wrapped in a damp paper towel in a sealed zipperlock plastic bag in the refrigerator for three or four days, but one of the reasons for growing it is to use it at its peak flavor–right away.

The flavor of French tarragon is described as sweet and anise-like, with minty and peppery sensations–complex!  (It contains some of the same essential oil that is found in anise.)  It’s best to add it near the end of cooking because, like some other herbs (basil, for example), it loses some flavor with heating.

This is not an herb that you reach for as your basic “go to” like thyme or oregano but it’s a classic with chicken, mild seafood, and eggs.   A simple lemon/butter sauce is delightful on seafood with a bit of tarragon added.  The sweet, anise-like flavor is also good with root veggies like carrots, beets; fresh vegetables like peas, asparagus, green beans.   You can use tarragon with fruits as well as vegetables:  melon, peaches or stone fruits.  An intriguing suggestion  I’ve seen (but not yet tried) is with citrus sorbet such as grapefruit or lime; sounds like a great summer cooler–I also  wonder about adding it with grapefruit when making aqua fresca for hot weather drinks.

It’s part of some classic herb mixes such as the French mixture called fines herbs and herbes de Provence (actual herbs used and proportions will vary with the producer).  It’s also use in the classic Béarnaise sauce, frequently served with a good steak.

You’ll find your own uses for this herb if you have it readily available.  As always, smell and taste and see what clicks with you; even though there are classic combination, there are lots of other possibilities.

A son goût!  

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