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Tangy tarragon

Herb Snips


Tangy is the perfect descriptive word for French tarragon! It tastes like anise, pepper, licorice, mint and pine. The botanical name, artemisia dracunculus var. sativa, is the plant to buy. It has a zesty flavor that chefs appreciate. Food writer Craig Claiborne calls it “seductive and satisfying”. It has been used in cooking for 2000 years. Do not confuse it with Russian tarragon, which does not have the same pungent taste.

This aromatic herb derives its name from the French “estragon”, meaning little dragon. It is in dispute as to whether it refers to the herb’s serpentine root system or the medieval belief that it was an antidote for snakebite. The French prize it as an ingredient in their “fines herbes” blend. It was grown in Thomas Jefferson’s herb garden at Monticello. This is no surprise considering the length of time he lived in France where he developed an appreciation for their cuisine.

You can’t rely on seeds because French tarragon is usually sterile. It is a “sure thing” when grown from young plants, cuttings or rootstock. Plant it where it will get six hours of morning sun each day, good draining soil, good air circulation and regular watering. The roots are sensitive to excessive heat and if in a very sunny spot may need a layer of mulch to protect them. It is a hardy perennial, which needs to be divided every three years because the twisted roots can strangle the plant. It has smooth lance shaped, dark green leaves. The imposter, Russian tarragon, has light green fuzzy leaves. Companion gardeners recommend French tarragon be included in the kitchen garden to enhance the growth and flavor of vegetables.

It is best used fresh, but for winter storage it can be frozen or preserved in vinegar. Wash and freeze in plastic bags or chop and put in ice cube trays with a little water. Put the washed and dried fresh leaves in a jar with white vinegar. Store in a dark cool place. Remove the leaves and add to your recipes as needed. If the recipe will not benefit from the vinegar flavor, wash the leaves before use. Tarragon harmonizes with many foods and dramatizes their flavors. Meat, poultry, fish, soups, vegetables as well as cheese and egg dishes are primary examples. I especially like to use it to perk up sauces, marinades, vinegars, mustards and dressings. It is cooling and refreshing when added uncooked to salads, dressings and other cold dishes. When cooked it adds a “warming” aspect to foods. These two diverse attributes in one herb make it a must for the creative cook.

One of the components of tarragon’s essential oil is coumarin, which is said to relieve pain. You may note numbness on your tongue or mouth when chewing tarragon leaves. For this reason it is used as a folk remedy for toothaches. The combination of tannins and bitters are said to promote bile production and thus aid digestion.

In spite of its lack of flowers this “two foot two” bushy herb adds a charming accent to the landscape. Its versatility in the kitchen makes French tarragon a “tangy” must in every herb and vegetable garden. A special thanks to Sheryl for sharing her favorite tarragon recipe. Keep in mind that if you use the fresh herb you will need to triple the quantity. Contact me through my Website at with your comments and column ideas. Enjoy an herbally tangy month!


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