Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
Specifically French Tarragon, is a culinary delight. Its scientific name dracunculus comes from the Greek word drakon, or dragon. In olden days, it was called “The Biting Dragon” and peasants grew it just in case an errant dragon might bite them, for it was said to cure dragon bites. It was also used as a tonic for the heart and liver and to clear the head of fuzzy thinking. In general in those days, it was chopped with other greens into salads and soups or stews.
Helen Fox reports in “Gardening with Herbs” that Ibn Baithar was the first European to write about tarragon, saying that the Syrians cooked it with other vegetables and that the juice was a precious drink of the kings of India for its medicinal effects. It is commonly called “Little Dragon” for the burning sensation is leaves on the tip of the tongue when chewed. Its flavor is a combination of anise and thyme. The plant is native to Siberia, but was quickly adopted by the French, who call it “Herbe au dragon” and quickly discovered that tarragon made an excellent flavoring for vinegar. In fact, Alexander Dumas said that no vinegar is good without it. Soon afterwards another adventurous cook incorporated it into Sauce Tartare. French Tarragon is essential in Bearnaise and Ravigote sauces. Most chefs agree that tarragon is perfect with chicken, to flavor brown stock, mayonnaise and fish sauces.
True French Tarragon is a perennial that prefers a sunny location with good drainage. The photo above is a replacement plant I purchased very late last fall, too late to plant in the ground so it has been wintering in the basement as is not perfectly happy, as indicated by the paler than usual leaves. Yet this week, after this cold snap passes, it will go in the ground in the potager. It replaces a three-year old plant that succumbed to our extremely wet spring last year, so I’ll need to find a spot that has better drainage.
True French Tarragon cannot be grown from seed so it is propagated from divisions or cuttings taken in very early spring. French Tarragon generally grows to about 18” in height, with dark green, alternate slender leaves that are smooth. Some authorities suggest that dividing the plant every three to four years keeps it vigorous. Packets of seed that are labeled “Tarragon” are generally Russian Tarragon, an artemisia that is a rampant self-seeder often reaching 5’. It is nearly void of flavor, and will take over the entire neighborhood in a flash, so avoid it. Unfortunately, some uneducated greenhouse growers grow the seed, but purchase French Tarragon labels to put in their plants. I always taste a leaf of a tarragon plant to make sure that “little dragon” appears on the tip of my tongue before purchasing.
Pineapple Tarragon Cake
I developed this recipe for my fourth book, Herbal Blessings, which features herbal desserts. Hope you enjoy it.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 x 13” pan.
In large mixing bowl, beat 2 eggs. Add 2 c. sugar and 2 tsp. vanilla. Open a 20 oz. can crushed pineapple and drain juice into measuring cup. Add juice to egg/sugar mixture. Mix well.
Mix together: 2 tsp. baking soda and 2 c. flour. Gradually add to egg/sugar mixture. Remove from mixer. Stir in pineapple and 2-3 T. chopped fresh tarragon (or 2-3 tsp. dried.) Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 30 min.
When cool frost with icing: 8 oz. cream cheese (room temp.) and 1 stick margarine (room temp.) Add 2 tsp. vanilla and 2 c. powdered sugar. Remove from mixer and stir in 2 T. chopped fresh tarragon. Spread over cake.