Charlemagne, lanceolate, light green color, intense aroma – descriptions of an encounter with a medieval Tuscan dragon? – No they are the gastronomic backstory behind dragoncello, the Italian word for the herb tarragon. Native to Central Asia tarragon spread west into Italy after the Crusades. Culinary historians write that the herb was brought into Tuscany by Charlemagne around 774 and then grown in the gardens of the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, near Montalcino. Charlemagne stopped near Montalcino on his return to Rome. His army was suffering from the plague and he decided to make camp when an angel advised him to collect a particular kind of grass and infuse it with Brunello wine (not bad medicine). The army was cured and Charlemagne built an abbey on the site dedicated to the martyred Saint Antimo.
Herbs such as menta (mint) and dragoncello may not be as familiar as basil and oregano when thinking of Italian cooking but the regional foods of Siena in Tuscany and certain parts of Umbria make liberal use of these aromatic herbs in dishes like cannoli di ricotta al dragoncello e pecorino (short crust pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese, tarragon and pecorino cheese), gnocchi verdi alle erbette con menta e dragoncello (gnocchi served with a sauce made of mint, tarragon and parsley) and funghi porcini al dragoncello (porcini mushrooms flavored with tarragon). There is a popular Tuscan salsa called Dragoncello Sauce that is served with vegetables, fritto misto, beef, poultry and seafood. Certain regional olive oils are even described with grassy notes of dragoncello and sage.
You’ll need to travel outside the tourist flow to see and savor this side of Italy so make sure to look for local trattorie in towns like Colle di Val’ d’ Elsa, Siena, Artimino and Volterra. Here you’ll find profumato al dragoncello wafting through the air with delightful dishes that are particular to the region all without a fire-breathing dragon in sight.
*dragoncello means “little dragon” in Latin thought to be named for the pungent flavor or for the herb’s serpentine roots