Tarragon is called the "King of Herbs" by the French, and with good reason. It is the main flavoring in many of the sauces that form the foundation of classic French cuisine, such as bearnaise, rigavote and tartare. When paired with chopped sprigs of fresh parsley, chives, and chervil, you have the traditional seasoning blend known as fines herbs. This aromatic blend enhances the flavors of egg, chicken and fish dishes, and is also used as a basis for salad dressings. When using tarragon in cooked dishes, it is best to add it at the end, as heat tends to decrease its flavor. Unlike most of the other herbs, tarragon loses the potency of its flavor when dried. This may be one reason it is so frequently preserved in vinegar, which captures tarragon's essence and creates a tasty condiment that can be used in dressings, mayonnaise and as a zesty deglazing alternative to wine.
French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is the variety most often used in recipes. Its flavor is sweeter and its leaves are more delicate than its relative Russian tarragon, (Artemesia dracunculoides), which tends to have coarser, paler leaves and a bitter, inferior flavor. Unfortunately, whereas the Russian variety spreads and reproduces easily, French tarragon cannot be propagated by seed but must be cultivated by cuttings and root divisions. For a healthy plant, it requires rich, well drained soil and full sun.
While most herbs have a long history of use as medicines, and a equally long list of the ailments they were supposed to cure, tarragon's list is relatively short. This is most likely due to the fact that tarragon loses its aromatic volatile oils as the herb dries.
Tarragon was used by the ancient Greeks as a remedy for toothache. Today we know that tarragon contains an anesthetic chemical, eugenol, which is the major constituent of anesthetic clove oil, making its use for temporary pain relief understandable. During medieval times there was a belief, called the Doctrine of Signatures, which stated that an herb's appearance revealed its medicinal value. According to this philosophy, tarragon was thought to cure snake bites, due to the serpentine shape of its roots. Even tarragon's species name, dracunculus, comes from the Latin for dragon, again referring to the shape of its root, and adding to the myth of curing bites from venomous beasts and mad dogs.
French tarragon's generic name, Artemisia, comes from the Greek goddess Artemis, goddess of the moon. Many of the plants in that family, Dusty Miller and Sagebush for example, have a soft, silvery color, as if bathed in moonbeams. The common name, tarragon, is thought to be a corruption of the Arabic word "tarkhum" meaning little dragon.
Although tarragon is most closely associated with French and European cuisine, it was not cultivated in Europe until the late 1500's, when the Tudor family introduced it into the royal gardens, from its origins in Siberia. Later, when the colonists settled in America, they brought along tarragon for their kitchen gardens, along with burnett to flavor ale, horehound for cough syrup and chamomile for soothing tea and insect repellent.
Tarragon vinegar is excellent for making salad dressings and marinades for meat and poultry. It is also a flavorful addition to gravies. To make tarragon vinegar, place 1 sprig of tarragon in an airtight bottle. Bring white wine vinegar to a boil and carefully fill the bottle with the hot liquid. The vinegar can be stored for several months if kept tightly closed in a dark place.