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Bay Laurel – Laurus Nobilis

A most noble of herbs, Bay Laurel (Laurus Nobilis) was the subject of the November 10 Herbie Group meeting.  The ancient Greeks believed this Mediterranean perennial was created by godly intervention. In one version of the mythology, Daphne, a nymph, pleaded with Mother Earth for help in avoiding Apollo’s amorous advances.  Mother Earth obligated, changing her into a bay-laurel tree for protection.  Zeus, watching the transformations, vowed to always wear a wreath of laurel leaves and make the laurel a part of all triumphal ceremonies in her memory.  Bay has the more recent distinction of being named the International Herb Association Herb of the Year 2009.

Bay was first an herb of poets, but also of oracles, warriors, statesmen and doctors. The leaves were made into wreaths for illustrious poets (“poet laureate”) and the ancients used the leaves to crown heroes. Bay laurel was the symbol of wisdom, both acquired and intuitive.  The name 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.  In the Bible, the sweet-bay is often an emblem of prosperity and fame.  In Christianity it is said to symbolize the Resurrection of Christ and the triumph of Humanity.  In Chinese folklore, there is a great laurel tree on the moon, and the Chinese name for laurel literally translates to “moon-laurel.”

A tender perennial (zone 8 to 11), bay prefers well-drained soil and full sun.  Bay can be grown in this area, but needs protection from extreme elements.  Soil pH requirements are reported to be between 6.6 and 7.5, or pH neutral.  Pruning helps to encourage new growth, and as you prune, you can collect the leaves for future use as an aromatic for cooking, sachets, essential oils and salves.  Bay may reach heights of 60 feet in its native range, but is generally much smaller, 3-10 feet, in culture.  It can be successfully grown in containers.  Bay laurel is propagated most often from root cuttings.

Bay laurel is a pyramid-shaped tree or large shrub with shiny gray bark.  The leaves are waxy, lanceolate, deep green and 3 to 5 inches long (8 to 12 cm) and 1 to 2 inches broad (2 to 4 cm), with a characteristic finely serrated and wrinkled margin.  It is dioecious (Greek for “two households”), with male and female flowers on separate plants.  Bay blooms in late spring to early summer, bearing pale yellow-green flowers, about ½ inch in diameter.  Flowers appear in pairs together beside a leaf.  The fruit is a small black berry about ½ long, containing a single seed.

Be careful not to mistake other bay laurel-sounding plants for bay laurel: many of these plants are highly poisonous.  Leaves of the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica), loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus) and West Indian bay (Pimenta racemosa) are highly toxic and should not be eaten.  Even California bay (Umbellularia californica) has an aroma much like bay laurel but has a more bitter taste and should not be used in cooking or used sparingly.  Red bay (Persea borbonia) and swamp bay (P. borbonia var. pubescens) grow in the coastal southern United States and the plants’ spicy leaves can be successfully substituted for L. nobilis.

True members of the Lauraceae family include other notably aromatic genera: Cinnamomum (Cinnamon, Cassia and Camphor Laurel),  Lindera (Spicebush), and one of the only deciduous members,  Sassafras, which is a native to this area.  Surprisingly, Avocado is also a member of the Laurel family, although it is known more for its oily fruit than aromatic bark, seeds or leaves.

Bay’s medicinal uses range from easing headaches and stomachaches to treating wounds and insect bites.  Considered an anti-inflammatory, bay was traditionally drunk as a tea and used in bath.  Today bay is used externally as an essential oil or salve to relieve muscular aches, sprains as well as arthritis pain.  Because the leaves have bactericidal and fungicidal properties, bay can be used to combat colds, congestion, influenza and viruses.

Mass spectrometry and chromatography reveal bay’s deeper secrets:  several flavonoid derivatives were detected: 10 flavonoid O-glycosides, one flavonoid C-glycoside, catechin, and cinnamtannin B1. The leaves contain about 1.3% essential oils (Ol. Lauri folii), consisting of 45% Eucalyptol, 12% terpenes, 3-4% sesquiterpenes, 3% methyleugenol and other a- und ß-pinene, phellandrene, linalool, geraniol and terpineol.  The berries contain both fixed and volatile oils (“Oil of Bays), including laurostearine, the ether of lauric acid.

Bay’s major contribution to cooking is its fragrance; sweet but not cloying, pervasive but not overpowering.  Since the bay leaf has a brittle, leathery texture, its flavor should be extracted by adding leaves whole to the foods like soups and stews, then simmered.  It’s personal choice whether to leave the leaves in the dish or remove them before serving.  Bay’s aroma peaks between three days and a week after it has been picked; this brief drying time concentrates the oils.  Freshly harvested bay leaves can be loosely rolled and stored in an unsealed plastic bag and kept in the refrigerator for months.  The still-green leaves will be superior in taste to dried leaves available in grocery stores.

The following recipes were sampled:

Virgin Bramble

2 parts Juniper and Bay Leaf Syrup*

1 part freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 sprig tarragon

6 blackberries

Crushed ice

Soda water

  1. Stir together Juniper and Bay Leaf Syrup and lemon juice in a highball glass until well combined.  Add tarragon and blackberries, and muddle until slightly crushed and berries are broken up.
  2. Add ice, top off with soda, and serve.

Juniper and Bay Leaf Syrup

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

3 teaspoon juniper berries

3 bay leaves, lightly crushed

  1. Combine sugar, water, juniper berries and bay leaves in a small saucepan; stir to dissolve sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  2. When mixture boils, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer until mixture is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.Remove from heat and let steep 15 to 20 minutes. Strain syrup to remove herbs, and transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

From: Chow website http://www.chow.com/recipes/11026

Chickpea Bay Leaf Feta Cheese Dip

16 oz chickpeas, canned, or soaked until softened

2 cup chicken stock (low-sodium)

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

2 cloves garlic

1 onion quartered

1 tablespoon lemon juice

8 oz. feta cheese, shredded

Salt & Pepper to taste

  1. Simmer chickpeas, chicken broth, bay leaves, garlic, and onion in a heavy sauce pan for 20 minutes.  Remove onion and bay leaves and drain off all chicken broth, reserving around ½ cup.
  2. Puree or mash chickpeas until you are satisfied with the texture.  Mix in shredded feta cheese, lemon juice, cumin, smoked paprika, reserved chicken stock and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Garnish with chopped parsley.

Chocolate Pudding with Bay

Serves 6

2 cups half & half cream

3 large fresh bay leaves or 2 dried bay leaves

3 tablespoons cornstarch

2/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa

½ cup milk

3 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, cut into small pieces

½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

  1. Heat the half & half cream with 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.
  2. After the bay has infused the cream, 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Place the custard cups on a plate or pan and allow 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.

From Susan Belsinger’s presentation materials at The Herb Society of America’s 2009 Annual Meeting and Conference

Another selection, Cajun Jambalaya, can be found at the Food Network website.

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