Tarragon

"It would be a terrible shame to leave tarragon to hushed dining rooms and three-star chefs. With its aniseedy, liquoricey punch, its slight pepperiness and its hints of pine, tarragon is not something to use with a heavy hand, but in the right quantities and the right company, it can be sublime." High Fearnley-Whittingstall

It's spring and my tarragon has sprung into life again in my little herb garden. I have tried to grow tarragon several times in my life but never with much success. This plant though has thrived - well thrived in my terms, not in general gardening terms. Suffice to say that it grows sufficiently well to provide me with the odd tarragon flavoured dish.


If you have room anywhere - even if it's just a pot on a windowsill do try to grow it because:


"the 'King of Herbs,' tarragon with its gentle licorice, reminds us not to forget that miracles are possible." N.M. Kelby - White Truffles in Winter


Make sure it's the French tarragon though - Artemisia dracunculus - because the Russian tarragon is hopeless. I was pretty sure that mine was the French but when I started reading about it I started to worry because mine seemed to be going too well. But then I saw that a good test is to have a nibble of a leaf and it should leave your tongue slightly numb. Which it did, which was interesting in itself, so I breathed a sigh of relief.


That numbing of the tongue may be vaguely related to its name. The French for tarragon is 'estragon' which means 'little dragon' and that in turn it comes from the Latin - dracunculus - for dragon. Why dragon? Well there are two theories - one is its tangle of winding roots, and the other is its supposed ability as an antidote to venomous bites. Not true by the way but that's what they used to think.


I'm talking about tarragon because today we had my cooking lesson with the grandchildren and today was kebabs. I decided to make chicken kebabs with my first lot of tarragon for the year and some mustard and cream. I am actually very pleased with my choice of mustard and cream to accompany the tarragon because I see that it goes wonderfully well with cream, and to a lesser extent with mustard. I think it might be one of the herbs in Dijon mustard.


"it is at its most welcome when immersed in liquid, preferably of the dairy kind." Nigel Slater


It's certainly one of the herbs in the french fines herbes mixture - parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon. Now chervil is another herb which is used profusely in France and which is very difficult to find here - it's even difficult to find in garden nurseries. I attempted to grow it once, but like parsley it has a tendency to bolt and go to seed, so of course mine did.


Nigel Slater is not the only one who applauds its use with cream though. Indeed one of my most favourite recipes of all time - Delia's Chicken with sherry vinegar and tarragon sauce includes lashings of crème fraïche. Every now and then - not often enough really - you make something from a recipe that you have found that makes you go 'wow'! And this is one of them. I don't make it that often because it also includes a fair amount of sherry and sherry vinegar, so it's a bit of a special dish, but it is truly magnificent and very easy. A 'luxury herb' as Beverley Sutherland Smith says, for a luxury dish. You can get all of those ingredients from your local supermarket these days. Well tarragon is definitely a seasonal thing - one of the few left these days.


Chicken is the classic pairing for tarragon. Several cooks will tell you to make tarragon butter and put it under the skin of chicken for roasting. Poulet au vinaigre - chicken in vinegar is a classic French dish - indeed Delia's recipe above, is, by her own admission a variation and features tarragon. But Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also think that it goes amazingly well with rabbit with the River Cottage guy even suggesting squirrels! Well we don't have squirrels here, but I don't think even the British eat squirrels do they? Other than gypsies that is. But that might be legend anyway. I know they are cute but they are a pest I believe, so maybe the River Cottage crew go out and hunt them.


Actually when you look at all those lists of things that tarragon goes with, there are only a few things on that list - with chicken at the top of it. Then comes cream and eggs, and maybe fish. Not everyone seems to be convinced by fish. But they also seem to agree on tomatoes - which is a little odd to me and rather different from those other things. But I did find this very easy and very tempting dish from Nigel Slater - Baked tomatoes with tarragon oil. It would make a good first course or brunch dish don't you think?


And then there is another classic:


"The crowning glory, the whole point of this herb, is as the principal flavour in sauce Béarnaise, the unctuous, egg-yolk rich emollient for steak." Nigel Slater

Mind you various snooty chefs make statements like it takes a lifetime to learn to make this. Not quite true, but not that easy I guess. If you want to give it a go, Guillaume Brahimi demonstrated how to make it on his Plat du Tour program recently.


It is also the chief ingredient in Sauce Ravigote, which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall outlines:


"Its gutsy flavour means tarragon goes well with other strong ingredients in a ravigote sauce: chop lots of tarragon, chives, chervil, parsley and watercress, and mix them with some chopped anchovies, capers and cornichons, then stir in some olive oil, a tiny splash of tarragon vinegar, a little lemon juice and a dab of Dijon mustard. It's delicious with cold chicken, or beef, or simply grilled or barbecued fish." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall


In these troubled times we are perhaps all having just a little bit more alcohol than usual and I did see this drink called a Tarragon Collins from the Guardian which I have to say sounded rather attractive for a sunny day. It's gin based with some lemon juice and sparkling water flavoured with a tarragon syrup. Yes I could be very tempted by that.


Almost all of the cookery writers that I looked at for this post regarded tarragon as special and perhaps the height of herb heaven. So when Bunnings opens again go buy yourself a plant and put it in your garden or a pot and dine like a king - or queen - every now and then. Or maybe just make the tarragon syrup and sip on a gin as the sun goes down.


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