The earliest known cookbook, featured bay laurel as an important seasoning.
Sidebar: What is that Scent?
Laurus nobilis. Say it again. It has such a nice ring to it, conjuring fantasies of kings and their subjects and tales of the ancient Olympics. Call it by its homelier name, bay laurel, and it evokes the memory of hot soup on a cold rainy day. How did this magnificent evergreen tree come to be so highly regarded?
The appellation Laurus nobilis is as ancient as it is well deserved. The generic name, Laurus, the family name, Lauraceae, and the common English name, “laurel”, all are derived from the Latin name for the laurel tree. The specific name, nobilis, means “notable” or “renowned”.
Native to the Mediterranean, the tree is known as daphne– in Greece. From the ancient mists of mythology comes the tale of the sun god, Apollo, who fell in love with the nymph Daphne. She remained indifferent; her father resolved the problem by turning her into a laurel tree. From then on, Apollo wore a laurel wreath in remembrance of Daphne, and so the custom began.
The familiar green bay laurel tree connotes honor and glory: the ancient Greeks and Romans crowned their heroes and their scholars with laurel wreaths. Champions of the Olympics, first held in 776 b.c., wore garlands of the fragrant leaves. Roman senators wore laurel chaplets on their heads (though perhaps the purpose was to cover their bald spots, as a latter-day wag has written).
The tree’s common name of bay, as in bay laurel and sweet bay, comes from baie and bacca, the Middle French and Latin words for “berry”, referring to the small purple-black fruits that form on mature trees that have not been heavily pruned.
Early Romans believed bay laurel provided protection from thunder and lightning. While the tree was considered good luck, its death was also thought to be an omen of great disaster. Shakespeare referred to this superstition in the play Richard II when the Captain says: “’Tis thought the King is dead, we will not stay. / The bay trees in our country are all wither’d.” (To a modern gardener, that sounds suspiciously like a lack of rain rather than an omen.)
At least fifteen varieties of L. nobilis are grown in western Europe, and horticulturists in Israel have begun collecting varieties native to that area. Here in southeast Texas, we have grown three cultivars in addition to the species. Willow-Leaf has very long, slender leaves, Aurea’s new growth is a lovely golden color, and Undulata’s leaves have wavy margins. Plants of Undulata frequently show up in the trade labeled as something else.
In addition, bay laurel has its look-alikes and smell-alikes. We feel that perhaps humans have a genetic affinity for some tastes that has led to the use of plants in different parts of the world that provide similar flavor. The California bay (Umbellularia californica), a tree native to the United States and towering more than 80 feet tall, also belongs to the Lauraceae. Its wood is used for fine cabinetry in Northern California and Oregon, and its 5-inch leaves are dried commercially for wreaths. One of the primary constituents of its essential oil is toxic, so you’d better stick to real bay in cooking!
Early colonists and pioneers moving across the continent used sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana) to flavor meat, and they placed the large leaves in lard to reduce rancidity, hence the moniker “fat back bay”. Whether it possesses antioxidant properties as many other culinary herbs do is not known, but at the time it was thought to be effective.
Red bay (Persea borbonia), a native throughout the Gulf Coast region and north to Virginia, has long been used for seasoning, as the vernacular names sweet bay and laurel-tree attest. As with the other smell-alikes, the fragrance and thus the flavor dissipate after drying; used fresh, the leaves are adequate substitutes for true bay. Since it grows wild in our area, we can impress the kids on camping trips by “living off the land” when we cook with red bay.
In recent years, we have become acquainted with a south-of-the-border bay laurel substitute that closely resembles L. nobilis. Diana Kennedy, the doyenne of regional Mexican cookery, often calls for the indigenous Mexican bay (Litsea glaucescens) in her recipes. On a holiday trip to Mexico, we found both fresh and dried branches in the Cuernavaca marketplace. Its similarity to Laurus nobilis was surprising. A botanist friend later gave us some Mexican bay seed, which we germinated and recently planted in the ground. We shall observe its cold hardiness next winter. Since it is at home in colder parts of Mexico, we hope it will prove to be a good substitute in some locales where L. nobilis cannot be grown outside year round.
A word to the wise: Be wary of collecting and using any wild plant as flavoring or food unless you’re absolutely sure of its safety. Just because a plant is called some type of bay or laurel does not mean that it is edible.
When crushed or broken, the leaves of bay laurel yield aromatic oils that are essential for kitchen magic as well as for perfume and medicine. The fragrance and taste are best described as sweetly spicy and warm, with balsamic overtones reminiscent of eucalyptus, with which it shares a predominant oil constituent. The presence of other, moderating components is what makes the difference. Flavor is the best indicator of the true L. nobilis. If it is faint or, alternatively, extremely bitter, the leaves are either very old or not the real thing.
Bay laurel plants have a dense and rather shrubby growth habit, but they show great variation, some sending up shoots from the base like fig trees while others are single-stemmed. The diversity of form is part of the charm of cultivating the plant.
The new leaves are smooth, very tender, and pale green. A leaf shape with a gently rounded shoulder is the most common, but it is not unusual to find several different shapes of leaves on the same plant. The leaves are 1 to 3 inches long and 1/2 to 1 inch wide. As they mature, they become very tough and glossy, with a rather woody petiole. Fluffy, yellowish-white blooms that may be male or female appear in the summer, followed by the fruit, which turns black as it dries.
Bay laurel is a slow-growing but relatively easy plant in the garden. It will thank you for a rich, loose garden soil with an abundance of humus to provide good drainage. Additional fertilizer is rarely required when bay laurel is planted in the ground, particularly if the bed is well prepared. In moderate climates of the southern and eastern states, it grows well outside in a protected area. Planted in the ground, it may reach 25 feet but more commonly grows to about 6 feet.
Plant in a sunny south or east exposure near a building or wall for protection. Bay laurel will tolerate light frosts without burning and occasional hard freezes if the temperature drop is not prolonged. A tree that freezes to the ground may resprout from the rootstock, but a plant so stressed requires protection for several years until the new top growth becomes woody.
L. nobilis has long been an important container-grown street plant in Europe. When kept uniformly trimmed, it is indeed a handsome ornament in the landscape. We have seen massive bay laurel trees standing watch over the entryway to majestic castles, serving as a focal point in formal herb gardens, used in hedges and mazes in re-created medieval gardens, and clipped into fanciful topiaries.We only hope that the magnificent bay laurel trees growing above the third-floor windows at a lovely hotel in the older section of Dubrovnik have been spared during the Yugoslavian civil war. We enjoyed all our meals there under flowering and fruiting branches, and we remember a wonderful evening in the Croatian countryside when the lamb was barbecued over bay laurel wood. Rosemary branches were used to brush the meat with a fragrant sauce. Ah!
The commercial popularity that bay laurel trees have enjoyed for centuries in Europe and many parts of the Middle East has not caught on in this country. Nevertheless, bay laurel is becoming more widely grown, particularly as a patio and indoor specimen plant in areas where winters are too cold for it to survive in the ground.
Bay laurel grown in a container adapts well to indoor growing conditions with strong light. If it is kept in the house, an occasional spritzing of leaves will be in order if the temperature is too warm and humidity is low. Water it regularly; a bay laurel that dries to the point of wilting, whether in a container or in the ground, will rarely recover.
An unheated, enclosed porch will often provide the needed protection for winter survival of a container-grown bay laurel tree. It performs beautifully when the container is placed outdoors in the summertime in full sun without transplanting. Even in moderate climates, we strongly recommend that a smaller plant remain in a container until of sufficient size to survive outdoors, or at least 1 foot tall. That way, you can move the plant around to find the best light and protect it from too much rain or cold. When moving a container-grown bay laurel outdoors in the spring, allow at least a week for the plant to become acclimatized to the hot summer sun; place it in the shade to begin with, then move it into the sun for increasingly longer periods.
We recommend using clay containers or wooden tubs with plenty of drainage holes. When temperatures drop into the low teens or single digits, we cover our outdoor bay trees with an old bed sheet to break the wind. Several of our 3-foot bay laurels in 18-inch clay containers came back strongly from their bases after the harsh winters of 1989 and 1990, when temperatures neared 0°F.
All container-grown plants, including bay laurel, should be fertilized regularly with an all-purpose fertilizer such as 12-12-12. Formulations too high in nitrogen (represented by the first number) produce lush, soft growth with little flavor. Some southern gardeners like to use a quarter-strength soluble fertilizer for daily waterings, but in summertime when we’re watering regularly, we prefer to use a granular time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote.
Scale is the primary insect pest of bay laurel, and the problem is greater when plants are grown indoors. Good housekeeping routines and close observation are musts. Look for flat brownish ovals clinging to the undersides of leaves along the midribs, or the shiny “sap” they exude on leaf surfaces. Rubbing alcohol wiped on the undersides of leaves weekly as a preventative or daily if you see an infestation can usually keep insects at bay—no pun intended. If the alcohol does not curtail the varmints, an application of an oil-based spray may be in order.
Propagating new bay plants can be frustrating, but the following tricks can increase your chances for success. Take heel cuttings from semihard wood, and snap tips from branches rather than cutting with clippers. Strip the lower leaves and dip the cutting into Rootone, a rooting hormone with fungicide. Then stick it into a small pot filled with light medium (we use a good potting soil). When a knob forms at the end of the stem in a few weeks, it’s a promising sign, but several more weeks and even months can go by before the cutting shows roots. This long and dicey propagation time results in small bay plants costing $1.00 to $1.50 per inch, which may seem outrageous to novice growers but is justifiable when you understand the difficulty of producing young plants.
Propagation of bay laurel from seed is considerably faster than from stem cuttings, but only recently has viable seed become readily available. One result is that wholesale growers are finally beginning to have a sufficient supply of plants for their customers. Seed is listed in a few retail catalogs, and some has been stratified (moist-chilled) to promote germination. Avoid letting the seeds dry out in storage.
Proper harvesting will give a small bay laurel a good start and keep new growth coming on strongly. Do not cut single leaves from branches. Rather, pull down on the leaf, thus breaking the cambium layer of the stem. You will see the small node Mother Nature placed there to send out a branch should it be needed—a trick up her sleeve to ensure survival of the species.
Cutting a stem several inches long is even better because the plant will send out two new branches. Shaping is simple and fast when you cut branches rather than single leaves. When you subtract, you multiply, and the chef is the winner.
If there is sufficient growth on a bay laurel to dry a supply for cooking or crafting, you can hang the leaves from a wire or simply lay them on a tray or rack until crisp. If smooth, flat leaves are of interest, remove leaves from the stem, place them on a tray, and cover them with a heavy object. After a day or so, remove the weight to allow the leaves to dry completely.
As bay laurel is a mainstay of the herb garden, well worth any extra effort needed to keep it growing, its leaves are a treasure for good cooks the world over. Around our house, we always use at least three or four leaves for six servings, even if the recipe calls for just one.
Bay laurel is one of three seasonings that we term “liaison” herbs. Like parsley and sweet marjoram, bay laurel helps other contrasting flavors blend together. We like to think that when one of these liaison herbs is used with other more assertive ones, the flavors don’t fight one another. We hope our readers will test this theory.
The myth that bay leaves must be dried before use must have been spread by cooks who never encountered fresh ones. When dried, the leaves maintain their flavor much longer than most other herbs, but the fresh flavor is superior. We can’t tell any difference between the strength of fresh and dried leaves, so we substitute them in equal amounts in recipes, unlike most other herbs, which require two to three times as much fresh as dried.
Fresh bay leaves become quite soft in cooking. They can be used whole, but trim out the midrib with scissors or a sharp knife if chopping or blending with other ingredients. Dried bay leaves do not soften when dropped into the soup or stew pot. Leave them whole or broken into large pieces to be removed by the cook or pushed aside by the diner. Pieces with sharp edges or midribs can lodge in the throat, requiring medical attention.
An important element of French cuisine is bouquet garni, of which bay laurel is the centerpiece herb. The term means a “bouquet of herbs” and refers to whole stems of fresh or dried herbs that are tied together with kitchen twine or rolled into cheesecloth so that they can be easily removed from the dish they have flavored. We like to just drop young (not woody) branches or stems into the pot of soup or place them around the roasting chicken or pork loin. They can be removed at the end of the cooking time with a slotted spoon or tongs.
Bay laurel leaves go into almost everything in our kitchen: salad dressings seasoned with the chopped soft, fresh leaves (petioles and midribs removed); butters and cheeses with a combination of other herbs; soups, stews, and ragouts, especially those with strongly flavored meats or vegetables; the cooking water for rice, pasta, potatoes, and, of course, shrimp. We even drop an occasional branch into dessert sauces for a “what in the world is that delicious flavor?” reaction.
For a creative cook, most herbs and spices can be made to work with any food. You’ll have favorites, yes—but don’t be afraid to experiment, even with such a distinctive flavor as bay laurel. An herb whose history dates to ancient times has earned its place in your seasoning repertoire. And with a name like Laurus nobilis, it deserves center stage.
• The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Seeds. Catalog $2.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 North Pacific Highway, Albany, OR 973221. Golden bay. Catalog free.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON L0C 1A0, Canada. Plants and seeds. Catalog $2.50
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Golden bay as well as L. nobilis plants. Catalog $2.
Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay are fine cooks and experienced gardeners. They and their bay laurel plants live in Round Top, Texas.