Because tarragon is vastly superior fresh to dried, it was little used in home kitchens until fairly recently. Now it's an essential and indispensible herb.
French tarragon plants
Artemisia dracunculus originates from Central Asia, probably Siberia. The herb dragantea mentioned in the Capitulare de Villis of Charlemagne is thought to be artemisia dracunculus or tarragon, but could also refer to snake weed polygonum bistorta which is found across a similar geography and had medicinal applications including supposedly curing snake bite. It is not known when (or by whom) the aromatic varieties were first bred.
Leaves, frequently with the stems included. The herb should be used fresh, because the aroma of dried tarragon is relatively weak.
Asteraceae (daisy family).
French Tarragon is sweet and aromatic, reminiscent of fennel, anise and liquorice (see also cicely). Russian Tarragon, in contrast, is not at all fragrant and tastes slightly bitter. Tarragon's strong and yet subtle flavour differs much from most other anise-flavoured spices. Yet, a plant popular in the US but hardly known elsewhere, Mexican tarragon, offers an almost perfect imitation of tarragon aroma.
In the Middle Ages, tarragon was known as tragonia and tarchon, generally believed to be Arabic loans. In Modern Arabic, the name is tarkhun, the origin of which is unclear, but may be a loan from Old Greek, perhaps akin to drakōn "dragon" or "snake". The plant was linked to dragons because of the serpent-shaped rhizome and there was a wide-spread belief that tarragon could not only ward off serpents and dragons but could also heal snake bites.
The names of tarragon in modern languages of Europe and Western Asia are mostly derived from the Arabic or Greek names, e.g. English "tarragon", Finnish rakuna, Spanish tarragona and Hebrew taragon. In French, the name acquired an initial "e" (estragon), which then spread culinarily to many other languages, e.g. Scandinavian esdragon and Russian estragon.
In some languages the herb has popular names that are clearly translations of tarragon/estragon names into the vernacular, e.g. Dutch slangekruid "snake herb" and drakebloed "dragon's blood", Italian dragoncella "little dragon", French herbe dragonne "dragonwort" and Chinese long hao "dragon-mugwort". The Icelandic fáfnisgras means "grass of Fafnir", named after an evil dragon in the Eddic poem Fáfnismál.
Another group of names may have arisen from Arabic without Greek or Latin intermediates, e.g. Turkish tarhun, Georgian tarkhuna, Farsi tarkhun, Kurdish tarkhuun and, via Turkish, Romanian tarhon and Hungarian tárkony.
For the genus name artemisia, see southernwood. Species name dracunculus means "little dragon" (diminutive of draco).
The German name bertram is sometimes misapplied to tarragon, but should be reserved for anacyclus pyrethrum (asteraceae). It is an adaptation of the Greek plant name pyrethron, which refers to the hot and pungent taste of the root, or maybe to its antipyretic action (pyr "fire"), cf. also Slovenian pehtran.
It is surprising that tarragon is so little used in contemporary European cuisine as its subtle yet spicy anise fragrance can improve many different kinds of dishes and is particular suited for lightly flavoured food as popular in Western and Central Europe. One reason for low popularity may be that tarragon should always be used as a fresh herb, but the almost flavourless Russian variety is more frequently sold in most countries. Whatever the reason, tarragon is today almost restricted in use to expert chefs with those less interested in culinary matters finding it almost exclusively in the form of tarragon-flavoured mustard paste. In the US, tarragon is largely substituted by the similar but sweeter Mexican tarragon.
In Southern Europe, particularly in Mediterranean France, tarragon is more popular and it is a component of the spice mixes herbes de Provence, fines herbes and bouquet garni. In French cuisine, tarragon is preferred as a fresh herb whenever possible.
The rich and pleasant fragrance of French tarragon makes it a good addition to delicate poultry dishes, herb sauces based on sour cream and mayonnaise or mushrooms. Tarragon is popular for salads and is frequently used to flavour vinegar or olive oil used for salad dressings (often combined with capers).
Tarragon is the characteristic flavouring for sauce béarnaise, a famous recipe of classical French cuisine. Sauce béarnaise owes its taste to white wine vinegar, reduced together with shallots, black peppercorns, parsley leaves and tarragon. The delicately flavoured sauce is suggested for service with fried, roasted or grilled meat, but it also goes well with boiled vegetables.