Bay laurel has been a part of the herbal repertoire for at least as long as people have been keeping written records. Also known as sweet bay, this evergreen herb makes a great addition to the kitchen garden and easily can be grown on a patio or deck. Bay plants charm cooks with their uniquely flavored, waxy green leaves, and the herb’s medicinal qualities cover a wide variety of complaints and conditions.
Because of its many, varied uses, the International Herb Association has chosen bay (Laurus nobilis) as its 2009 Herb of the Year.
Legend and Lore
Classical legends mention bay in relation to the nymph Daphne, who transformed into a laurel tree during her pursuit by the Greek god Apollo. Versions of the story vary; one says that Daphne was a fiercely independent, wild creature and, rather than give herself to Apollo, she pleaded with her father, the river god Ladonas, to transform her. Another account indicates that Apollo was wounded by an arrow of Eros (Cupid) and fell madly in love with Daphne, who fled from his advances and was changed into the slender bay laurel moments before her capture. All agree that Apollo was so astounded by the tree’s beauty that he claimed the laurel as his own and dedicated it to reward the highest achievements of Greek civilization.
Bay was first an herb of poets, but also of oracles, warriors, statesmen and doctors. The leaves were made into wreaths for illustrious poets (thus the term poet laureate) and the ancients used the leaves to crown heroes. Bay laurel was the symbol of wisdom, both acquired and intuitive. Laurus nobilis is believed to derive from the Celtic word laur, meaning green, and the Latin nobilis, signifying noble. Baccalaureate is from the Latin for laurel berries, which were given to Greek students of the classical period.
Indoors, Outdoors and in Pots
A tender perennial native to the Mediterranean, bay prefers well-drained soil and full sun. It does best if pruned on a regular basis, which encourages new growth. It does not tolerate cold winters—Zone 7 is about the limit for outdoor cultivation. If you live in a colder climate, it needs to be grown in pots and moved indoors for the winter. I do know gardeners who grow bay trees outside in a protected area, often with southern exposure. The gardeners wrap the bay in Reemay (a polyester material) or burlap to protect the plants from freezing weather and drying winds. Some of these plants reach heights up to 20 feet. Bay laurel most often is propagated from root cuttings.
The medicinal uses of bay have been recorded throughout history. These uses range from easing headaches and stomachaches or encouraging menses to treating wounds and insect bites. Considered an anti-rheumatic, it traditionally was drunk as a tea and used in baths; today it is used externally for muscular aches and pains as well as arthritis. The essential oil is sometimes rubbed on sprains and bruises. Because the leaves are bactericidal and fungicidal, bay is used to combat colds, congestion, influenza and viruses. Some of bay’s other actions include a variety of uses for digestion (stimulates the digestive tract, settles the stomach and relieves flatulence); helps regulate menstrual flow; helps soothe inflammation and increases perspiration and cleansing through the skin; fights infection with its antimicrobial and antiseptic characteristics; stimulates the elimination of body wastes through the kidneys and bladder; and calms the nervous system by reducing stress and relaxing the body.
Fragrance and Flavor
The culinary history of bay has been constant over thousands of years, and it is still an essential herb in the cuisines surrounding the Mediterranean. Strangely, though bay is likely of Middle Eastern origin, there is no mention of it in records of Chinese cuisine. In earlier periods when people appreciated stronger herbal flavors, bay was commonly ground fine and sprinkled over fresh vegetables, then cooked. It was also marinated in fruit compotes. Today’s cooks employ it with every variety of meat and most kinds of fish and shellfish. Bay leaves are found in the stuffings of or simply alongside many roasted fowl dishes. Its sweet balsamic aroma wafts from freshly baked breads, puddings and custards. It is essential to bouquets garnis (savory spice bundles) for soups and stews, sauces and ragouts (to make your own bouquet garni, see next page). Tom Stobart, author of Herbs, Spices and Flavorings (Overlook, 2000), praises bay’s essential nature, writing that “No kitchen should exist without bay leaves, and they should be used as a matter of habit.” Based on personal experience, I believe that bay adds depth and warmth to most kinds of sweets and savories.
The major contribution of bay to foods is its fragrance; sweet but not cloying, pervasive but not overpowering. If you are fortunate enough to have walked through a forest with many bay trees, you will understand the incredibly refreshing power of bay’s scent. Its blend of balsam and honey, with hints of spices like nutmeg and clove, are predominant in the first inhale. These scents are followed by just a suggestion of orange and/or lemon, sometimes followed by faint, flowery tones described as vanilla or rose, and occasionally a hint of mint. The fragrance can be heady; these subtle combinations and other more ethereal echoes must be an ideal of master perfumers.
Bay’s aroma peaks between three days and a week after it has been picked; this brief drying time concentrates the oils perfectly. I keep freshly harvested bay leaves in a loosely rolled, unsealed zip-close bag in the door of my refrigerator; they stay green for months this way and are far superior to dried leaves.
Although the taste is complex and aromatic, if overdone, bay can be sharp, slightly peppery, or even a bit bitter. Most cooks use the whole leaves and remove them before serving, though in my family tradition, the guest who had the leaf in his portion was due some minor or major fortune. Crumbled or crushed bay leaves have very sharp edges; they should be enclosed in a bouquet garni bag or contained in some way so unsuspecting diners don’t encounter them.
In general, the leaves should be added when the cooking begins. Aside from cooking with the leaves, for centuries bay leaves have been placed in foods (such as flour, dried beans and grains) to deter insects and meal moths. Commercially dried bay should be bought carefully, as leaves can be old and fairly tasteless.
Growing your own bay and using it fresh or drying it yourself eliminates this problem and will provide you an aromatic, attractive addition to your garden or patio for years to come.