( Originally Published 1933 )
Tarragon comes from eastern Europe, Siberia, Tartary, and Chinese Mongolia. It is a small, shrubby plant about two feet high, the branches of which are so leafy and twisted they look like a maiden's long hair being blown in the wind.
Root. The root is twisted, brownish, and not woody. Stem. The stems are yellow-green, woody, rounded, and slightly ridged.
Leaf. The leaves are alternate, slender, and pointed at the tips, with entire margins. They taste of a combination of anise, camphor, and are a little bitter and leave a tang and puckering in the mouth for quite a while. When the leaves are rubbed between the fingers the scent has something of anise in it.
Flower. The tiny round flowers are whitish-green and measure one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch across. They are carried in panicles and bloom in July or August. There are two kinds, the pistillate and bisexual flowers, and they produce no viable seed, only chaff.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
The name, meaning little dragon, is said to be derived from the fact that the roots coil in a serpent-like fashion. [
Ibn Baithar was the first European to write about it, and he says it was known to the Syrians who cooked the tender tops with other vegetables, and also that the juice of tarragon combined with the juice of fennel was one of the precious drinks of the kings of India and of Chorasan, by whom it was taken for its medicinal effects. He said it was soporific and sweetened the breath, and was good to chew before taking medicine, for it dulled the taste.
Parkinson wrote of a legend about tarragon, " ... that it was first produced by putting the seede of Lin or Flaxe into the roote of an Onion, being opened and so set into the ground, which absurd and idle opinion, Matthiolus by certain experience saith has been found false."
It was known in the United States before 1806.
Perfume. A volatile oil extracted from the green portions of the plant is known as estragon and has an odor similar to anise. This flavors confectionery, and is mixed into perfumes to obtain a special effect in fancy bouquets, and in the fern and new-mown hay types of perfumes.
Food. The tops and leaves are the portions used for flavoring. Alexandre Dumas in his famous cook book says that no vinegar is good without estragon. Along the Corniche, in France, the leaves are put into preserves. Tarragon leaves also flavor brown stock, mayonnaise, and fish sauces. Sauce Bearnaise is something else without the tarragon to give its peculiarly delightful taste. The leaves chopped and scattered over the lettuce leaves give an unusual flavor to a salad. It is not good in soups according to my taste, nor should it be added to the "fines herbes," for it does not blend well, but is apt to dominate any dish it enters.
When one buys seed labeled "tarragon" from certain German nurseries it is likely to be Artemisia redowski, which is quite different in taste from true tarragon and is a more vigorous plant.
True tarragon produces no seed and has to be propagated by cuttings from the roots. It is best to plant out the roots in spring, for it is a somewhat finicky plant and I find it will winter better after the plants have made a summer's growth. The stems are cut back and the plants protected either with straw or, as is done with roses, by hilling up the soil around them. Tarragon likes a little shade. In Europe it is cultivated in frames to have the fresh leaves during the winter. The commercial growers say it should be renewed every three or four years.