Honoring Bay Leaves

Bay leaves (Laurus nobilis) are also known as bay laurel. They come from the Lauraceae family, which also includes the more strongly flavored California bay leaf (Umbellularia californica), also known as the California laurel, Oregon myrtle, and pepperwood,  the Mexican bay leaf (Litsea glaucescens), and the cinnamon-flavored Indian bay leaf or malabathrum (Cinnamomum tamala). These bay leaves are all related to cinnamon and avocado. Two other plants sometimes referred to as bay leaves are in the Myrtaceae family. They include Indonesian bay leaf, also known as Indonesian laurel or salam leaf, and West Indian bay leaf, (Pimenta racemosa).  These two herbs are related to myrtle, clove, guava, feijoa, allspice, and eucalyptus. This article will focus on the most commonly used culinary bay leaf, the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis).

The bay laurel tree originated in Asia Minor, and spread to the Mediterranean and other countries with suitable climates. Bay trees were common in the temple gardens of ancient Egypt.

This tree is the basis for a Greek legend. One day in a fit of resentment, Eros shot two arrows, one tipped with lead and the other with gold. The golden-tipped arrow struck Apollo and the lead one hit Daphne, a nymph and daughter if the river god Peneus. Apollo, who had gone to the valley of Tempe to purify himself after slaying the ancient evil serpent Python, immediately fell in love with Daphne, who, because of the effect of Eros’ lead-tipped arrow, fled from Apollo and ran to her father, the river. On seeing his daughter’s distress, Peneus changed Daphne into a bay tree, and the Greeks named the tree after her.

Apollo still loved Daphne, even though she was turned into a tree, and on his return to civilization, to commemorate his victory over the Python, established the Pythian Games, and victors at these games were given crowns of Daphne, or bay leaves, to wear. Apollo’s temple at Delphi had a roof made only of bay, and the Pythoness, the priestess there, would eat a bay leaf before giving the oracle. Bay is said it have some narcotic qualities, so maybe it helped in giving the priestess visions of the future. Aesculpius, Apollo’s son, and a healer, believed that bay was a powerful antiseptic that guarded against the plague. At one time, physicians were presented with laurel to impart to them the wisdom of Apollo and Aesculapius, the gods associated with healing and medicine. When the Olympic Games were established in 776BC, victors were also crowned with wreaths of laurel, as were later Roman Emperors.

Roman scholars, known as baccalaureates, are always portrayed wearing the traditional head wreath made of laurel leaves. In fact, the very name of this herb implies a position of honor when bestowed upon an individual. The Latin name for the bay tree is Laurus nobilisLaurus means praise and nobilis, renowned. The term baccalaureate, which translates to mean “berries of laurel,” is a merit of distinction given to those as a reward for earning a bachelor degree. The Roman poet laureate, Ovid, passed on the Greek legend of Daphne and Apollo, who was, among other things, the Greek god of poetry. The phrase “to rest on one’s laurels” means to reflect on past triumphs or achievements and not do anything new. 

Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654), a physician-astrologer who fought in the English Civil War, wrote that the oil of the bay leaf and berries could get rid of pimples, and “all griefs and pain proceeding from wind…”

Bay leaf is not grown in Northern regions, as the plants do not thrive in cold climates. Turkey is one of the main exporters of bay leaves, although they are also grown in areas of France, Belgium, Italy, Russia, Central America, North America, and India.

Bay leaves contain many volatile active phytochemicals such as α-pinene, β-pinene, myrcene, limonene, linalool, methyl chavicol, neral, α-terpineol, geranyl acetate, eugenol, and chavicol. These compounds have antiseptic, antioxidant, digestive, and may have anti-cancer properties.

Fresh bay leaves are an excellent source of ironmanganesevitamin A, and vitamin B6. They’re a very good source of calciumvitamin Cfibercopperfolatezincriboflavin, and magnesium.

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Bay Leaves*

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

iron 43 mg 537%
manganese 8.167 mg 355%
vitamin A 6185 IU 206%
vitamin B6 1.740 mg 133%
calcium 834 mg 83%
vitamin C 46.5 mg 77.5%
fiber 26.3 g 69%
carbohydrates 74.97 g 57%
copper 0.416 mg 46%
folate 180 mcg 45%
zinc 3.70 mg 33%
riboflavin 0.421 mg 32%
magnesium 120 mg 30%
fat 8.36 g 29%
phosphorus 113 mg 16%
Calories 313 15.5%
protein 7.61 g 13%
niacin 2.005 mg 12.5%
potassium 529 mg 11%
selenium 2.8 mcg 5%
sodium 23 mg 1.5%
cholesterol 0 mg 0%

*Yes, I do realize that you’re not going to eat that much. This is just for illustration.

Fresh bay leaves are very mild and do not develop their full flavor until several weeks after picking and drying. The glossy dark-green leaves can be used fresh or dried. However, they are best after being allowed to wilt under the shade for few days when their bitterness has gone, but the leaves still retain their aroma. Traditionally, bay leaves are picked and dried slowly in the shade away from direct sunlight, in order to retain volatile essential oils. In stores, you can find dried whole bay leaves, dried crushed bay leaves, freeze-dried bay leaves, and dried ground bay leaves. Avoid any with foul odors, spots, or fungus-infected leaves.

At home, store bay leaves in an airtight jar or container and keep them away from strong light. Bay leaves should not be stored for longer than a year, because they will begin to lose their flavor.

Bay leaves are one of the most widely used culinary herbs in Europe and North America. Fresh or dried bay leaves are used in cooking for their distinctive flavor and fragrance. The leaves are often used to flavor soups, stews, braises and pâtés in Mediterranean cuisine. Bay leaves are one of the ingredients in bouquet garni, along with thyme, parsley, sage, savory, celery, and basil. They are also used in the preparation of court bouillon, which is made with water, salt, white wine, vegetable aromatics (onion and celery), and flavored with bouquet garni and black pepper. Bay leaves can be brewed into an herbal tea. They are also also an essential ingredient in many classic sauces such as bread sauce, tomato sauce, and béchamel. Bay leaves are added to flavor rice and vegetable dishes. They are also used to flavor sweet dishes like sweet breads and custards.

Bay leaves have also been used to flavor seafood. In the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland, a crab and shrimp seasoning called Old Bay has been the secret ingredient in Maryland crab cakes for over 70 years. I always thought that Old Bay referred to the Chesapeake Bay. It turns out, it was named after a steamship line that traveled between Maryland and Virginia. But while I don’t know the real ingredients for Old Bay, I was surprised to learn that one of the main ingredients that many people use to make their own versions is bay leaves.

Here’s my secret seasoning that I use for my vegan Not-So-Crabby-Cakes:

New Bay Seasoning

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon ground dried bay leaves
1-3/4 teaspoon ground celery seeds
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sweet or smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground mace
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

Preparation:

Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Store in an airtight container and store in a cool place. Prep Time: 15 minutes; Makes about 1/4 cup.

Whole bay leaves are leathery in texture and tough to chew and swallow besides being quite strongly flavored. Remove them from food before serving, as they may cause choking, and may cut your tongue and injure your digestive tract. Pregnant women should avoid eating them in excess, as the chemical compounds in them may cause abortion. If you find bay leaves in cooked food, just put them aside before eating. 

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