The reckless tales of Tarragon; with Leiths Alumnus, Alistair McVicar

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The reckless tales of Tarragon; with Leiths Alumnus, Alistair McVicar

With a Doctorate in Climate Change and a career in Data Science, Alistair McVicar went on to do a diploma at Leiths. With a career change focus on the family herb farm business, he brings a unique culinary and scientific perspective to his work.

We had a chat with Alistair - direct from Jekka’s - to learn about planting, growing and using fresh herbs in our cooking. With Tarragon featuring as Jekka’s ‘Herb of the Month’ for April, we had the pleasure of hearing all about this fragrant green leaf.


Can you tell us a bit about Tarragon, its history and best ways to use it?

Tarragon is from the family Asteraceae. It is a Herbaceous Perennial with aromatic, long narrow smooth, green leaves. Its anise flavour promotes appetite and complements so many dishes; such as chicken, veal, fish, stuffed tomatoes and, of course, it is the main ingredient in sauce bearnaise and the traditional ingredient of Fines Herbes. Its name, Dracunulus, means ‘little dragon’, which could be the result of the shape of its roots or, as we believe, its fiery flavour. In ancient times the mixed juices of Tarragon and Fennel made a favourite drink for the Kings of India. There is also a story that Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon for her reckless use of Tarragon.


Is tarragon easy to grow and how do we get the best results?

Only the Russian and wild varieties produce viable seed. A lot of growers are propagating it and selling it as French Tarragon. The taste is not comparable, the Russian Tarragon tastes like ‘upper class grass’. Both French and Russian Tarragon can be propagated by cuttings from both growing tips or roots in spring.

French Tarragon is the more tender of the two; it grows best in a warm, dry position and will need protection in winter. The plant should be renewed every three years as the flavour can deteriorate with age.

Tarragon grows well in containers. As it produces rhizomes, choose a container that gives it room to grow so it will not become pot bound. Makes sure the plant is watered but note that it hates being overly wet. In winter, Tarragon dies back into the ground. It is the wet that kills, not the cold. If it is in a container, move it into a cool, frost-free environment. Jekka’s top tip is to pinch off any flowers to ensure a continuous supply of leaves.


For those without a garden or outdoor space can Tarragon be grown in a pot on a windowsill inside the home?

Herbs, in general, prefer to be grown outside but some of them can be grown indoors if you provide them with the correct conditions. Unfortunately, French Tarragon is not one of them. If you are looking to grow herbs indoors, please check out Jekka’s blog on indoor herb gardening.


When is French Tarragon ready to pick and eat?

Tarragon can be picked as soon as it appears. At the start of the season pick sparingly so it has a chance to grow. You can pick the leaves from early spring to early autumn. The flavour varies throughout the season, with sweetest anise flavour in early spring, so this is the best time to make Tarragon vinegar. In summer the flavour becomes more intense with a slightly bitter anise flavour. This is the best time for longer cooking such as in baking or with roasts.


What are your favourite uses for French Tarragon?

French Tarragon is one of the top culinary herbs. Our favourite uses for French Tarragon is to make a vinegar or to serve it with Chicken either in a salad or a roast; below we give a simple pan- fried chicken and French Tarragon recipe.



Tarragon Vinegar

This is one of the most useful vinegars that can be used for salad dressings, marinades or mayonnaise. This is taken from Jekka’s Master Class How to Use Herbs.

Makes 500ml

Ingredients

  • 500ml of white wine vinegar;
  • Enough French Tarragon to fill a 500 ml bottle.

Steps

  1. Either sterilise a jar or bottle or use a shop brought bottle of white wine vinegar. If using the later, pour a small amount into a bowl to stop the bottle overflowing when you add the herbs.
  2. Add your herbs to the bottle and push down to ensure they are fully covered by the vinegar.
  3. Label and date your vinegar.
  4. Leave to infuse on the window sill for 4 to 6 weeks; taste periodically.
  5. Will keep for about a year in a cool dark place. You can top it up as necessary to ensure the herbs remain covered.


French Tarragon and Chicken Breasts

This recipe reminds us of Grand-ma Clare, Jekka’s mother, who always roasted chicken with Tarragon. Goes well with a roast potato and a crisp green salad for a lovely spring meal. This recipe is taken from Jekka’s Cook Book (pg. 315).

Serves 2

Ingredients

  • 25g unsalted butter;
  • Light oil or sun flower oil;
  • 2 chicken breast fillets;
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped;
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped;
  • 1 tbsp French Tarragon leaves, removed from the stem and finely chopped, plus a few whole leaves for garnish;
  • 2 tbsp crème fraiche.

Steps

  1. Heat a large frying pan with a lid and add the butter with a good glug of olive oil.
  2. Once the butter has melted, add the chicken breasts and cook on both sides until golden brown to seal in the meat.
  3. Lower the heat, cover and cook for about 10 minutes until cooked through.
  4. Remove the cooked chicken and add the shallot and garlic to the pan. Increase the heat and cook, stirring, until soft. Add the crème fraiche and cook for one minute.
  5. Return the chicken to the frying pan and toss them in the sauce for 1 minute. Serve, garnished with some French Tarragon leaves.


If you are lucky enough to have some Tarragon in your garden, or can sow some seeds and reap the rewards, Leiths recommends a reckless use of Tarragon to add some fiery fragrance to your spring plate.

Share your tarragon inspired recipes with us on Instagram using #CookWithLeiths

Author: Pamela Daniels

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