Bay leaf is the dried aromatic leaf of the laurel or bay which is known as Laurus nobilis in botanical terms. These are widely used for garnishing in soups, sauces, stews and as a seasoning for fish, meat and poultry. It is often used as a pickling spice.
It is oval, pointed and smooth, 2.5 to 8 cm long. When fresh, the leaves are shiny and dark green on top, with a lighter underside. When dried, the leaf turns a matte olive green. It feels warm and pungent when broken and its aromatic oils are released. It has a slightly bitter in flavour and is a powerful redolent. The dried leaves should be whole and olive green. The brown leaves lack flavour. The leaves may be used whole, crushed or ground in cooking. Kept away from light in airtight containers, the whole leaves retain their flavour for two years.
The English term bay leaf (Middle English baye, Old French baie) derives from Latin bacca “berry”, meaning originally the fruits. The other names used to refer to the leaves across the globe are as follows:-
- Apollo’s Bay Leaf, Bay, Bay Laurel, Grecian Laurel, Indian Bay, Laurel, Nobel Laurel, Poet’s Laurel, Roman Laurel, Royal Laurel, Sweet Bay, Sweet Laurel, Wreath Laurel
- French: feuille de laurier, laurier franc
- German: Lorbeerblatt
- Itlaian: foglia di alloro, lauro
- Spanish: hoja de laurel
- Greek: dhafni.
Bay leaves are native to the Mediterranean. Early Greeks and Romans attributed magical properties to the laurel leaf and it has long been a symbol of honor, celebration and triumph, as in “winning your laurels.” Apart from this original variety today we know of the following other types:-
- Turkish bay leaves are 1- to 2-inch-long oval leaves. These leaves are known for their more subtle flavor compared to the other kinds.
- California bay leaf – The leaf of the California bay tree/Umbellularia californica, also known as ‘California laurel’, ‘Oregon myrtle’, and ‘pepperwood’, is similar to the Mediterranean bay but just happens to has a much more potent and sturdy taste.
- Indonesian bay leaf/Indonesian laurel/salam leaf/ is of Syzygium polyanthum. It is used more than often in dry form although the fresh one gives the “right” flavor. The leaf used in certain soups or steamed preparations. Like Indian bay leaf, it is also an inaccurate name because, unlike bay leaf, the plant belongs to Myrtaceae.
According to legend the Delphi oracle chewed bay leaves or sniffed the smoke of burning leaves to promote her visionary trances. Bay, or laurel, was famed in ancient Greece and Rome. Emperors, heroes and poets wore wreaths of laurel leaves.
The Greek word for laurel is dhafni, named for the myth of the nymph Daphne, who was changed into a laurel tree by Gaea, who transformed her to help her escape Apollo’s attempted rape. Apollo made the tree sacred and thus it became a symbol of honour. The association with honour and glory continue today; we have poet laureates (Apollo was the God of poets), and bacca-laureate means “laurel berries” which signifies the completion of a bachelor degree. Doctors were also crowned with laurel, which was considered a cure-all. Triumphant athletes of ancient Greece were awarded laurel garlands and was given to winners at Olympic games since 776 BC. Today, grand prix winners are bedecked with laurel wreaths. It was also believed that the laurel provided safety from the deities responsible for thunder and lightning. The Emperor Tiberius always wore a laurel wreath during thunderstorms.
Psalms 37:35 illustrates the esteem held for the mighty plant in Biblical times: “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree.” Romans considered the bay tree a symbol of glory as well as protection from thunderstorms. Nero believed bay trees purified the air and Roman victors would wipe the blood from their swords with the leaves. In Shakespeare’s time superstition held that when bay trees died, disaster was sure to follow.
Overuse of this herb can make a dish bitter. Fresh bay leaves are seldom available in markets. Dried bay leaves, which have a fraction of the flavor of fresh, can be found in supermarkets. Store dried bay leaves airtight in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.
In India the Bay laurel tree originates in the South slopes of the Himalayas. The bay leaves have essential oil from the leaves containing cinnamic aldehyde and traces of eugenol as its main constituents. Even though the bay leaves are native to the Mediterranean, they have given wondrous flavor and scent to the Indian cuisine. Indian bay leaves belong to a tree which is related to cinnamon. They are tough three- veined leaves and are very popular in Northern India, but are little known in other parts of the country. The reason for the popularity of bay leaves in Northern India is that Mughals influenced North Indian cuisine which adopted this flavour. In the Imperial Mughal cuisine, the bay leaves were used frequently in biryanis and kormas. Thus they formed the essential part of the mostly used blend of spices.