Aroma- Eucalyptus, Pine, Menthol
Flavour- Bitter, Eucalyptus, Menthol
Origin and Names
Bay leaves, like many other herbs in the mediterranean basin, held an important role in culture as well as cuisine. It’s common name Bay, derives from the old French word baie meaning berry or fruit as the term used to refer to the berries of the tree, over time the word became used to refer to the plant as a whole. “Bay leaf” can refer to the leaves of a number of trees, all which can be used in similar ways. The true bay tree however is the bay laurel, Latin name Laurus nobilis meaning “Noble Laurel”. This name likely refers to the history of laurels within Greek and Roman culture. The Greek god Apollo fashioned wreaths out of laurel to console himself after his love, the nymph Daphne, vanished leaving only a laurel bush. The Laurel wreath became a symbol of Apollo and was awarded to the winners of the original Olympic games. The Romans saw the bay laurel as a sign of victory, power and immortality which made it a favourite ornamental plant of the Emperors.
Geography and Cultivation
Bay laurels are native to the mediterranean and are thought to be remnants of once vast laurel forests which dominated Europe before the ice age. As the mediterranean dried, the forests were replaced by hardier shrubs leaving only a few isolated pockets of true laurel forests in countries like Turkey and Morocco. Bay laurels remain a common ornamental plant often used for hedgerows.
Bay trees are mid-height evergreens which can grow to 10m or more in their preferred climate. They thrive in shady areas with well drained soil. When harvesting the branches are pruned to allow easier access to the leaves which are then dried until their moisture content falls to about 12%, concentrating the flavouring oils found deep within the leaves. Bay leaves are usually sold whole but can be found in ground powder form as a spice.
Food and Other Uses
Whole bay leaves are commonly added to many dishes like stews and sauces in cuisines across the world. The flavouring oils are stored deep in the leaf and so require time when stewing to fully release, after cooking the leaves should then be removed from the pot as they are fairly robust and unpalatable. The ground leaves can also be added to stocks and soups however it can be very potent so should be used sparingly. Bay leaves are an essential part of the bouquet garni, a bundle of herbs added to many stews and sauces in French cuisine.
Its eucalyptus-like aroma has made bay leaves an essential ingredient in some cosmetics and perfumes. The oils released by bay leaves are a natural insecticide and so they have been used by entomologists to kill insects for study in the field.