Bay leaves (Sweet Bay or Sweet Laurel) originate in Asia but are well adapted to the Mediterranean where they grow profusely. They are commonly used in English and French cooking in a variety of dishes from soups and stews to grilled fish and meat dishes.
Use of bay leaves dates back to legends of the Greek god Apollo (god of prophecy healing and poetry). Legend suggests that Apollo was in love with Daphne, but it was unrequited. To hide herself from him, she turned herself into a bay tree. When Apollo found out what she had done he declared the bay tree sacred and wore a wreath of bay leaves on his head. In Ancient Greece and Rome it became a tradition to crown victors in battle and sporting events with a wreath of bay leaves. Poets received a similar honour – one that is recognised now in the accolade of poet laureate.
Bay leaves are slightly narcotic, and were used by the priestesses in the Temple at Delphi to induce mild trance-like states. However they do not induce such states when dried and used in small quantities in coking.
Varieties of Bay Leaf
There are two main varieties of bay leaf:
- Turkish – with medium, oval leaves and a subtle flavour
- Californian – with long, narrow leaves and an intense flavour
Bay leaves have a delicate, earthy aroma and a slightly bitter flavour. They are particularly good at drawing out the flavours of different ingredients in a meal. Bay leaves are most commonly used whole, as a dry leaf in stews and soups, or as part of a bouquet garni. They can also be crumbled into dishes, however because of their waxy texture it is best to use them whole and remove them before serving the meal.
Bay leaves are a staple ingredient in the French bouquet garni, a classic combination of herbs that’s tied together and added to a dish, such as a stew (dried herbs can be tied in cheesecloth). Once the dish is cooked, the bouquet garni is removed. A typical bouquet garni consists of two or three bay leaves and a sprig of parsley and thyme. However any combination of herbs can be used, including sage and tarragon, or rosemary and mint. Fresh bay leaves have an intense flavour, which lessens as it is dried. Just before adding bay leaves to a meal, gently crinkle them to bring out their flavour. Fresh bay leaves are much more pungent than dried bay leaves and should be used sparingly. Fresh bay leaves and large quantities of dried bay leaves can make a dish bitter.
Try adding a couple of bay leaves to chicken fricassee, beef stews and a bouquet garni with thyme and parsley to stock.
Bay leaves are a versatile ingredient in dishes and are used to bring out and compliment the different flavours of a particular meal. They have a pungent flavour when eaten fresh and a more subtle flavour when dry. They are best removed from the meal prior to serving or can be crumbled finely.