Celebrate Bay (Laurus nobilis): Herb of the Year 2009
From Legend and Lore to Fragrance and Flavor
by Susan Belsinger
The classical legend of bay’s origin was Daphne’s transformation into the laurel tree during her pursuit by Apollo. Versions vary; one infers that the nymph Daphne was a fiercely independent, rather 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 and the ancients used them 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. As bay is a narcotic and stimulant in large amounts, it was an important part of the Delphic rites. Apollo’s priestesses chewed bay before prophesying. Later, even placing bay leaves beneath pillows was thought to bring prescient dreams.
Since bay was so strongly associated with the gods and people of high esteem, it gained the reputation of protecting against all manner of natural and manmade disasters. Sorcerers and poisoners could not harm the person who carried bay. It was believed that lightning would not strike where bay was planted. The Caesars appropriated bay as their special protector against accidents and conspiracies. Though not notably successful, its efficacy in this field was maintained even in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Witches and devils were supposedly rendered helpless by it.
The medicinal uses of the herb were always important; it was used as often as garlic to protect against epidemics. Considered an anti-rheumatic, it was drunk as a tea and used in baths. The Romans used bay leaves and berries for the treatment of liver disorders. Culpeper said that bay berries were “effectual against the poisons of all venomous creatures and the sting of wasps and bees.” Oil from the berries was rubbed on sprains and used as eardrops.
The culinary history of bay has been constant and it is still an essential herb in the cuisines surrounding the Mediterranean. Strangely, though bay is likely of Mid-Eastern origin, there is no mention of it in records of Chinese cuisine. In those periods when people appreciated more and stronger herbal flavors, bay was commonly ground fine and sprinkled over fresh vegetables and cooked or marinated in fruit compotes. Now it is cooked with every variety of meat and most kinds of fish and shellfish. Bay leaves are 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 bouquet garnis for soups and stews, sauces and ragouts. I agree with Tom Stobart author of Herbs, Spices and Flavorings that “No kitchen should exist without bay leaves, and they should be used as a matter of habit.” and believe that bay adds depth and warmth to most kinds of sweets and savouries.
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 almost incredible refreshing power of bay’s scent. Its blend of balsam and honey, with hints of spice as in nutmeg and clove are predominant in the first inhale. These scents are followed by just a suggestion of citrus of orange and/or lemon sometimes followed by faint flowery tones described as vanilla or rose, and occasionally a hint of mint. I find the fragrance heady; these subtle combinations and other more ethereal echoes must be an ideal of master perfumers. The peak of bay’s aroma is between three days and a week after it has been picked; this brief drying time concentrates the oils just enough. I keep freshly harvested bay leaves in a loosely-rolled unsealed zip-close bag, on 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, sometimes bay can be sharp, slightly peppery, or even a bit bitter. Most cooks use the whole leaves and remove them before serving, though traditionally the guest who had the leaf in his portion was due to receive some minor or major fortune. Crumbled or crushed bay leaves have very sharp edges; they should be enclosed in a bouquet garni bag, or something similar, so that unsuspecting eaters do not come across 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 from flour and meal, bean and grains to dried fruits, especially figs and raisins to deter insects and meal moths. Commercially dried bay should be bought carefully from a spice merchant as leaves can be old and fairly tasteless. Growing your own bay and using it fresh or drying it yourself is the way to go.
Picking bay in the wild is not recommended, as some commonly called bays or laurels are highly poisonous. California bay, Umbellularia californica, which I have picked when living in California, has an aroma much like Laurus nobilis but the taste is much more concentrated and bitter and should be used sparingly in cooking, if at all. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) and West Indian bay (Pimento racemosa) are highly toxic and should not beingested.
Below are two recipes using the aromatics of bay in sweet recipes rather than savory.
Herb syrups are wonderful flavor essences that can be added in place of the liquid in cakes, pie filling, and all type of baked goods. They are good on all kinds of fruits and fruit salads, used in beverages, and to make sorbets. Make these when you have fresh herbs in abundance, their flavor and aroma will bring a brightness to fruits and desserts. Although I have been making herbal infusions and syrups for over twenty years, I have expanded my repertoire since reading The Herbfarm Cookbook by Jerry Traunfeld, Scribner, 2000. This recipe is adapted from his Master Recipe for Herb-Infused Simple Syrup.
Makes about 2 cups
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
About 8 to 10 herb sprigs or a large handful of leaves
To make an herb syrup, combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Add the herb leaves and bruise them gently against the side of the pan with a spoon. Place over moderate heat and bring to a boil. Cover, remove from heat and let stand for at least 30 minutes. Remove the leaves and squeeze them into the syrup to extract their flavor. This syrup can be made ahead and refrigerated for about 10 days, or frozen for up to 6 months.
Fresh Herbs, Flowers, and Spices to use for Syrups:
Amounts of fresh herb leaves, flowers, and seeds used will vary and depend upon the flavor of each individual herb, the list below is for sprigs about 4 or 5 inches long.
Anise hyssop—6 to 8 sprigs with flowers, or a handful of flowers
Basil—6 to 8 sprigs of anise, cinnamon, green, or lemon basil, flowers are good
Bay—10 to 12 leaves
Bergamot—6 to 8 sprigs, or handful of flowers
Gingerroot—5 or 6 thin slices of peeled root
Lavender—10 flower spikes or 1 tablespoon flowers
Lemon balm, lemon thyme, or lemon verbena—8 to 10 sprigs
Mint—10 to 12 sprigs of orange mint, peppermint, or spearmint
Rose—1 generous cup rose petals
Rosemary—5 or 6 sprigs
Sage—4 common sage sprigs; 6 fruit-scented or pineapple sage sprigs
Scented geraniums—12 to 15 leaves, or handful of flowers
Sweet Woodruff—1 generous cup small sprigs and/or flowers
Tarragon or Mexican tarragon—6 to 8 sprigs
Vanilla—1 bean, halved and split lengthwise
Violas—1 generous packed cup violets, Johnny-jump-ups, or pansy petals
Chocolate Pudding with Bay
This chocolate-rich pudding is redolent with the aroma of bay that lingers on your palate. Fresh bay leaves give the pudding a wonderful fragrance that you don’t get when you use dried bay leaves. I generally harvest bay leaves and keep them in a plastic bag that is not sealed, on the door of the fridge for up to three months. I believe they have a better flavor if they are harvested a day or two ahead of when they are to be used; this way I always have them on hand. Most pudding is served cold–I prefer mine at cool room temperature so you really taste the flavors—this one is delicious even before it is chilled. This is also delectable when prepared with a handful of any of the mints—orange mint, spearmint, or peppermint.
2 cups half-and-half cream
3 large fresh bay leaves or 2 dried bay leaves
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2/3 cup sugar
2 pinches salt
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 cup milk
3 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Heat the half-and-half cream with the bay leaves in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. When the cream starts to bubble around the edges of the pan, remove from heat and cover. Let stand for 30 minutes.
After the bay has infused in the cream for nearly 30 minutes, combine the cornstarch, sugar, salt, and cocoa in a bowl and add the milk, whisk the contents together. Pour the mixture into the warm cream and place over moderate heat. Continue cooking and whisking as the pudding thickens.
When the pudding begins to bubble and come to a boil, stir and boil for 1 minute. Remove the pan from heat and whisk in the chocolate pieces until they are melted. Add the vanilla and stir well. Carefully remove the bay leaves and pour the pudding into six ramekins or custard cups.
Place the custard cups on a plate or pan and allow them to come to room temperature. Refrigerate until chilled; at least 30 to 45 minutes. Serve at cool room temperature and garnish with whipped cream if desired.