Tarragon is a Eurasian herb in the Aster family, and its name can be pronounced either /TEHR uh gawn/ or /TEHR uh guhn/. The English name derives from the French estragon, which means little dragon. People have speculated that the name refers either to the shape of the twisted roots, or that it had a connection with beasts at one time, being thought to cure the bites and stings of both mad dogs and other venomous creatures.
There are three basic types of this herb: Russian, German or French, and Mexican. The Russian and French tarragons are actually varieties of the same plant: Artemisia dracunculus var. inodora and var. sativa respectively. Mexican tarragon, also known by various other names, such as Mexican Mint Marigold, is Tagetes lucida. The Russian variety is known for being more bitter, while French tarragon is described as sweeter and more anise-like. The French type must be grown from a root: it cannot be grown from seed. Mexican tarragon, with a similar taste to the French, is used in the winter when other types are difficult to come by.
Some of the best-known uses of tarragon group it with other herbs. Herbes de Provence, a traditional blend of herbs from southern France, does not have a single set recipe, but tarragon is one of the spices often included along with bay leaf, chervil, fennel, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, summer savory, and thyme. Likewise, it is a regular component of fines herbes, a traditional blend of finely chopped fresh herbs, which also includes some combination of herbs such as chervil, chives, dill, lovage, parsley, and thyme. Tarragon may also be added to rémoulade, a mayonnaise-based sauce characterized by the inclusion of capers and chopped gherkin pickles and served with cold meat or fish.
Tarragon’s use is also well-known in vinegar and in béarnaise sauce, a sauce made with egg yolks, butter, vinegar, wine, and shallots and used for eggs, fish, meat, and vegetables. Also, although it is not traditional, this herb may be found in bouquet garni, sprigs of herbs tied in cheesecloth and added to soups or stews as they cook, and which traditionally includes a bay leaf, parsley, thyme.