Saturday, September 26, 2015

Estragon - Tarragon. Tarragon, the herb, in French Cuisine.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated July 2021
Tarragon, a very important herb.

As one of France’s favorite herbs, fresh tarragon leaves will be in salads, salad dressings, vinegar, sauces, soups, egg dishes, tomato dishes, and herbal butters. Tarragon will also be accenting many meat and fish recipes. Tarragon’s aroma reflects its mild aniseed taste that adds a pleasant bittersweet flavor. While I do not like heavily accented aniseed dishes or pastries very much, tarragon is perfect.

Tarragon is an essential part of France’s most well-known herb group Les Fine Herbes and is the most important herb in Sauce Béarnaise. French bouquets garni nearly always include tarragon and tarragon is often included in the Provencal herb group the Herbes de Provence. Tarragon adds a flavor that can be identified as French though few first-time visitors to France can identify it by name.  

(A bouquet garni is made by tying several herbs with a thread and dropping them into the pot to flavor a stew or soup. When the herbs have created enough flavor the bouquet garni is removed by a tug on the thread.)

Bresse Chicken with Tarragon, Wild Rice
Photograph and recipe courtesy of Rostang Père & Filles
Which tarragon do French chefs use.

French chefs insist on fresh French Tarragon, (also called German Tarragon). Dried tarragon, as opposed to most other herbs, tastes stronger when dried and so is rarely seen in French kitchens. There are other tarragon family members, but they will not usually be used by French chefs. You may see a herb called Russian tarragon in the markets, it is more bitter than French tarragon and has a very mild tarragon taste. According to one of the chefs I talked to about herbs and spices, he said:” Russian tarragon is at its best when flowering in a garden!”

Cucumber-Tarragon Fizz
Tarragon on French menus:

Carpaccio de Magret de Canard a la Framboise, et Estragon -  Carpaccio of duck breast flavored with raspberries and tarragon.

Penne au Poulet et à l'Estragon
Penne pasta with chicken and tarragon
Photograph courtesy of Isabelle Hurbain-Palatin

Côtes d’Agneau à l’Estragon – Lamb chops flavored with tarragon.

Langouste, Macédoine de Légumes, Mayonnaise à l'Estragon Lobster tail prepared with cubed vegetables and served with a tarragon flavored mayonnaise. A macédoine is a French culinary size for cubed vegetables, and occasionally fruit, that should be cubes about 5 mm (0.2”) by 5 mm (0.2”) by 5 mm(0.2”). Great importance is given to the uniformity so check the exact measurements with calipers.

Scallops, creamed corn and tarragon.

Joues de Boeuf aux Pleurotes & Estragon – Beef cheeks prepared with oyster mushrooms and tarragon. Beef cheeks are a bistro favorite and cooked for hours until they are really soft.

Asparagus, smoked trout roe, toasted brioche, tarragon
Photograph courtesy of Lou Stejskal

Poëlée d'Escargots Fondue de Tomates et Beurre d'Estragon – Lightly fried petit-gris snails prepared with tomatoes cooked to a pulp and flavored with tarragon butter.

Poached Chicken with Tarragon Yogurt Sauce
Photograph courtesy of Michele Frazier

Palourdes de Quiberon au Vin Blanc, Estragon et Salicorne Clams from Quiberon cooked in white wine and tarragon and served with samphire (Salicornia).   Samphire is often, mistakenly, called an edible seaweed; it is not.  Samphire is a coastal plant, with many family members, and grows in salt marshes and in the sand along the coast, not in the sea.  Its shape, not its taste, gives samphire another name, sea asparagus. Quiberon is a peninsula on the southern coast of the department of Morbihan in Brittany, and apart from its fishing industry and oyster and mussel farms Quiberon  is a very popular summer holiday vacation spot for the French.  In July and August do not even think about looking for a free hotel room; the hotels are often booked one year in advance. 

Soupe de Poisson aux Croûtons et sa Rouille à l’Estragon – A fish soup served with croutons and a tarragon flavored rouille sauce. Rouilles are thick sauces that are used to add spice and flavor. They will be served on the side, usually together with the croutons, and then the rouille and the croutons may be added by the diner to the soup, drop by drop or piece by piece, to his or her taste. 

Sauce Béarnaise on French Menus.

Le Saumon Grillé d'Ecosse, Label Rouge, Sauce Béarnaise - Grilled Red Label Scottish salmon served with Sauce Béarnaise. (It is tarragon that give Sauce Bearnaise its special flavor).  A few, unique, Scottish salmon farms produced the first non-French product to be awarded the French Label Rouge, red label, for its taste, consistent quality, as well as its manner of production. These same Scottish salmon farms came along with the British RSPCA label of Freedom food.  The RSPCA Freedom Food rating is the highest standard for farmed fish in the world.  

Chateaubriand Grillé, Sauce Béarnaise – A chateaubriand steak served with Sauce Bearnaise. The Chateaubriand is cut from the center, the best and thickest part of a tenderloin, a beef fillet. The same cut is used for a tournedos including the famed Tournedos Rossini.  A Chateaubriand is a very thick cut from the center of the filet that is first roasted and then cut into two large portions that are then lightly grilled before serving. This roasting and grilling are behind the tradition of Chateaubriand only being served for two persons, as you cannot roast a single 300-gram steak. (The early Chateaubriand steaks were closer to 400 grams (14 ounces) each).

Chateaubriand, the man whose name is behind this dish, was François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, (1768-1848), Chateaubriand was a writer, a gourmand, as well as a politician. We traditionally have given the rights to the creation of the Chateaubriand steak to Chateaubriand’s personal chef Montreuil who named the dish after his employer. To order your Chateaubriand or any steak or roast in France, cooked the way you like it, click here.

Steak Entrecote, French Fries and Sauce Bearnaise.
Photograph courtesy of Trevor Pittman

Côte de Veau Grillée, Pommes Rôties, Ratatouille Maison , Sauce Béarnaise - A grilled veal chop, served with roast potatoes, the chef’s version of Ratatouille and Sauce Béarnaise.

Tarragon and Les Fine Herbs

Les Fine Herbs, France’s most important herb group includes five herbs: Cerfeuil, ChervilCiboulette, Chives; Tarragon; Persil, Parsley, and Thym, Thyme. While the percentages of each herb in this group are not written in stone tarragon is used with a gentle touch. Too much tarragon and it may out flavor the other herbs.

Tarragon and Béarnaise sauce.

Sauce Béarnaise is a “child” of Sauce Hollandaise. In the 1830s the chef and restaurateur Jean-Louis Françoise-Collinet, in his restaurant, Pavillon Henry IV, 20 km (12.5 miles) from Paris, took Sauce Hollandaise and omitted the lemon juice. To replace the lemon juice Jean-Louis took white wine vinegarshallotschervil, and tarragon, with the accent on the tarragon; voila, Jean-Louis had created Sauce Béarnaise. During the nearly two hundred years that have followed, Sauce Béarnaise has become more and more popular. The restaurant and hotel, the Pavillon Henry IV, with new owners, is still open today.

The origin of the name Sauce Béarnaise.

Béarn was part of the ancient independent kingdom of Navarre on France’s southern border with Spain. Today Béarn is part of the department of Pyrénées-Orientales in the administrative region of Occitanie. While Sauce Bearnaise is not an ancient recipe Jean-Louis’s sauce did take its name from Béarn. King Henri III of Navarre, whose name was used for Jean-Louis’s restaurant, Pavillon Henry IV, spent his childhood in Béarn. King Henri would become King Henri IV of France and with the French crown, King Henri became the first Bourbon King of France.

Strawberriesgoat’s cheese, and tarragon.
Photograph courtesy of Cajsa Lilliehook
Where did tarragon come from?

Some food historians believe that the tarragon in French cuisine was brought from Eurasia by the usual suspects, the Romans. The Romans brought many trees, fruits, and vegetables from home when they colonized France beginning in 121 BCE. Despite that possibility, others award the honor to the Greeks; the Greeks loved good food, no less than the Romans, and had built the port city of Marseille in 600 BCE. The Greeks had also settled many other parts of Southern France long before the Roman settlers arrived and brought grapevines that are related to some of southern France's vineyards. Then to confuse us all, wild French tarragon is also found in North America. How tarragon arrived in North America I do not know; it certainly ­­­­arrived there without the help of the Romans or the Greeks!

Tarragon in French homeopathic medicines.

Homeopathic medicines are recommended by many French doctors. These natural medicines and remedies are trusted by many doctors and their patients and France’s national health insurance covers them. Tarragon is an important homeopathic herb and may be offered as a herbal tea; in France, herbal tea is called a fusion or a tisane. Tarragon is said to stimulate the appetite, relieve stomach cramps and reduce the effects of stress among other valuable attributes. 

Older beliefs in the value of tarragon

Gernot Katzer, a recognized expert on herbs and spices, allows me to use his website to check out the stories I have heard from chefs and others. I also use  Gernot’s translations. From Gernot’s notes on the history of tarragon, I learned that the origin of the herb’s name may be linked to Ancient Greek. The word estragon links to drakon, meaning dragon, and snake. In the Middle Ages, there was a widespread belief that tarragon could ward off serpents and dragons and heal snake bites. Following along on that I advise anyone visiting Transylvania to take some tarragon along with the garlic they will be carrying. Together tarragon and garlic will keep away the dragons and preclude any visits from vampires. 

Dragons and snakes.  
Wave a bunch of tarragon and they will be gone.
Photograph courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library
Tarragon in the languages of France’s neighbors:

(Catalan - estragó), (Dutch - dragon), (German – französischer estragon), (Italian – estragone Françaisedragoncello), (Spanish - estragón), ( Latin - artemisia dracunculus).    


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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2015, 2021
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog write to Bryan Newman


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1 comment:

  1. Lovely round-up on the uses of tarragon. I have a new plant in my garden this year, so there's lot of ideas here on how to make use of it! Thanks for putting this together :)