King Henry IV of France (1553-1610), was one of France’s most beloved monarchs. Henry displayed great concern for his subject’s welfare and unusual religious tolerance. Known for his affable disposition and sense of humor, Henry brought peace and prosperity to France. His kindness and caring for his people earned him the sobriquet “Henry the Great.”
Henry was born in the city of Pau, the capital of the French province of Bearn. Baptized a Catholic, raised a Calvinist, and then rejoining Catholicism just before his coronation, Henry was embroiled in the Wars of Religion, (1562-1598), a period of civil war and savagery between the Catholics and French protestants. Henry terminated this conflict by issuing the peremptory Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed religious liberties to the Protestants. While this inevitably saved further civilian bloodshed it did not bode well for Henry. He was eventually assassinated by a fanatical Catholic, François Ravaillac, who stabbed him to death in his coach.
Henry was also known for being a gourmet. In 1836 a chef by the name of Collinet opened a restaurant entitled “Le Pavillon Henri IV” in Henry’s honor in the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye just outside of Paris. Collinet created a new sauce which was basically a hollandaise sauce infused with the herb tarragon. In honor of Henry, (who as stated was born in the province of Bearn), he dubbed the new concoction Béarnaise. But before we can delve into Béarnaise, we must first discuss tarragon.
Tarragon, also known as the dragon herb, is a perennial herb indigenous to Asia. It has narrow, pointed, green leaves with a potent anise flavor. Its use goes back to the ancient Greeks. The name tarragon is derived from the Greek word drakontion, meaning a serpent-eating bird. It is probably this lexicological tidbit that gave rise to tarragon’s mythical ability to cure snakebites.
There are different varieties of tarragon but the French subtype is the most widely hailed. There is also a Russian tarragon but its flavor is not as strong. America imports tarragon from France but it is grown in California as well. Fresh tarragon is available in summer and early fall. Try to avoid dried tarragon. Like most herbs, the dried counterpart is rarely as good as the fresh. Use tarragon, fresh or otherwise, somewhat sparingly as its flavor is quite assertive.
Tarragon has been a fixture in classical French cuisine for centuries. It is used with chicken, fish, eggs, salads, sauces, vegetables and to make the renowned tarragon vinegar. Tarragon is one of the herbs that compose the famous French admixture known as fines herbs, (pronounced FEEN ERB), along with chervil, chives and parsley. Finally, that brings us back to Béarnaise, my personal favorite way of utilizing tarragon. Béarnaise sauce pairs extremely well with meat and fish dishes.
Béarnaise is a derivative of Hollandaise sauce, one of the five “mother” sauces in French cuisine, (the others being espagnole, velouté, béchamel, and tomato). Mother sauces are base sauces which can be used as is, or set the foundation for a variety of other sauces. As stated, tarragon transforms Hollandaise into Béarnaise. But there are a number of other modifiers of Hollandaise. Add tomato and you produce a Choron sauce. Add beef stock to your Hollandaise and voila, you have Foyot sauce. Blood oranges give birth to a Maltaise sauce. You get the idea. Now onto our Béarnaise recipe:
• 1 shallot, minced
• 3 oz. tarragon vinegar
• 3 oz. dry white wine
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 4 oz. water
• 6 egg yolks
• 12 oz. clarified butter
• 3 tablespoons chopped tarragon
Place the shallot, vinegar and wine with some salt and pepper in a small saucepan and reduce it until it’s almost dry. Add the water and remove from the heat to cool somewhat. Strain it if you wish to remove the shallot.
Place a good-sized stainless steel bowl over another pot with simmering water, (a.k.a., a bain-marie). The water in the pot should be low enough so that it does not touch the bottom of the bowl.
Combine the vinegar, wine and water mixture and the egg yolks in the bowl.
Begin whisking incessantly until the yolks form ribbons, lighten in color and increase in volume.
Make sure the heat under the simmering water is not too high but just enough to keep it lightly simmering.
Too much heat and the eggs can begin to scramble.
You can even briefly remove the bowl from the heat from time to time to limit the temperature.
Add the butter in increments, constantly whisking.
Once the butter is fully incorporated, strain the sauce to remove any coagulated egg particles.
Finish with the tarragon and additional salt and pepper if necessary.
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