Behind the French Menu gives a tasty background to French cuisine, French dishes, how they are made and how they should be served.
Where there is a story behind a dish's creation and
that story may aid the diner's enjoyment then that will also be included. Bon appétit!
Tarragon is part of the herb group Les Fine Herbs and the herb behind Sauce Béarnaise.
I have written posts on a number of herbs and spices in French cuisine; however, most of those are also well-known in British and North American Kitchens. This post is on tarragon, a paramount herb in French cuisine, and not so well known in the kitchens of the English-speaking world.
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 it is often included in 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 taste or fragrance. (Bouquet garni:When chefs use a number of herbs together and tie them with string to flavor a stew or soup that is called a bouquet garni.. When the herbs have created enough flavors the bouquet garni is removed by a tug on the string.)
Tarragon on its own.
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.
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 seen flowering in a garden!”
Soupe de Poisson aux Croûtons et sa Rouille à l’Estragon – A fish soup served with croutons and a tarragon flavored rouille sauce. Rouillesare 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.
Le Saumon Grillé d'Ecosse, Label Rouge, Sauce Béarnaise. Grilled Red Label Scottish salmon served with Sauce Béarnaise. Certain 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.
Label Rouge Scottish Salmon is farmed under uniquely clean and controlled conditions in the crystal clear waters of certain Scottish Lochs. To date only a limited number of salmon farms have been awarded both the Label Rouge and the Freedom Food label.
Label Rouge Freedom Food.
Chateaubriand Grillé, Sauce Béarnaise. The Chateaubriand is a cut from the center, the best and thickest part of the tenderloin, the fillet. This is the same cut used for a tournedos including the famed Tournedos Rossini. A real 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 is behind the tradition of Chateaubriand only being served for two persons, you cannot roast a single 300-gram steak. The early Chateaubriand steaks were closer to 400 grams (9 ounces) each. Chateaubriand, the man whose name is behind this dish was François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, (1768-1848); a writer, a gourmand, as well as a politician. The rights to the creation of the Chateaubriand steak are traditionally given 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.
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
This important herb group today includes five herbs: Chervil; Chives; Tarragon; Parsley and 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. For more about Les Fine Herbes on French menus click here:
Tarragon and Béarnaise sauce.
Sauce Béarnaise is a “child” of Sauce Hollandaise. In the 1830’s 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 vinegar, shallots, chervil, 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, with new owners, is open today.
The origin of the name Béarnaise.
The name Béarnaise may seem to indicate a traditional sauce from the old province of Bearn, part of the independent kingdom of Navarre, on France’s southern border with Spain, but that is not so. Nevertheless, Jean-Louis Françoise-Collinet’s sauce, while a new creation does relate to Bearn, 570km (350 miles away) but uses no local traditions from there. The Good King Henri, whose name was used for the restaurant, spent his childhood in Bearn and that is the connection When Henri became King Henri IV of France, he was already King Henri III of Navarre, as well as the Prince of the Principality of Bearn; with French crown he also became the first Bourbon King of France. Today Navarre and Bearn are part of the department of Pyrénées-Orientales in Languedoc-Roussillon.
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 Romans arrived. The Greeks also brought vines that still today 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; however, it certainly came there without the help of the Romans or the Greeks!
Tarragon in French homeopathic medicines.
Homeopathic medicines are one of the tools used by many French doctors. These natural medicines and remedies are trusted by many doctors and their patients and they are covered by France’s national health insurance. Tarragon is an important homeopathic herb and may be offered as a herbal tea; in France, that is called a fusion or a tisane. Tarragon is said to stimulate the appetite, relieves stomach cramps and reduce the effects of stress among its many other valuable attributes.
French homeopathic pharmacies are identified by green crosses
Gernot Katzer, a recognized expert on herbs and spices, allows me to use his website to check out the stories I am told about herbs and spices by chefs and others. I also use his translations. From Gernot Katzer’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. You may see Gernot Katzer’s website at: