Sweet Bay is an herb of poets, oracles, warriors, statesmen and doctors.

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An excerpt from my new e-book "Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa"

For most people, bay is the least understood herb, and one which is tossed into soups and stews without a second thought, and then relegated to the back of the spice cabinet once again. This is understandable because the aromatic leaf from the bay tree doesn't taste like much other than, well, a leaf! But steep a few leaves in a warm broth or sauce and your dish will become infused with fragrant flavour.

When a recipe calls for a bay leaf this is not optional because although a bay leaf, by its very nature, plays second fiddle to other more prominent flavours. Just like a grind or two of black pepper, some sautéed anchovies, or a softened leek might not be instantly recognizable in a stew - like bay, they all add a layer of subtle background music for the stars of your dish to play over.  A less expected use for bay is in sweet dishes, where its background perfume rounds out the sweet flavours.

Bay was one of the earliest and most widely traded spices, and remains an established seasoning around the world - most noticeably in Indian, Middle Eastern, and many European cuisines. With its woodsy flavour and slight bitterness, bay helps to balance the flavours in many classic savoury dishes.  They are an essential component of the famous French “bouquet garni”- a bundle of parsley, thyme and a bay leaf tied together, and used to infuse flavour into a variety of dishes and stocks.  A lamb, chicken or beef stew would simply not taste the same without a bay leaf or two, nor would the famous “Mainara Pasta Sauce” that originated in Naples, or a good New Orleans “Creole Gumbo” - a stew with shrimp and sausage, originating in southern Louisiana during the 18th century.  Although bay is one of those herbs whose flavour remains in the background, never under estimate its power in cooking. It is also one of the few herbs that won’t lose its flavour when dried.

The Bay is an aromatic evergreen shrub or small tree, native to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. The Latin name is believed to derive from the Celtic word "laur" meaning green, and the Latin "nobilis" signifying noble.  If left unpruned, a bay tree will vary in height and spread, depending on climate and rainfall. It is a slow grower and under optimal conditions can eventually reach a height of about 7.5m. Small greenish-yellow male or female flowers are produced in spring, followed by black berries in late summer, on the female plants.

Bay has a noble history and features prominently in classical Greek, Roman, Chinese and Biblical culture. In the Bible, the sweet-bay is often used as an emblem of prosperity and fame, and in Christian tradition it is said to symbolize the resurrection of Christ and the triumph of humanity. Chinese folklore says that there is a great laurel tree on the moon, and the Chinese name for laurel literally translates to “moon-laurel.”

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 used to crown heroes. In Greece the tree is known as "Daphne" and one version of her story, which is shrouded in the ancient mists of mythology, tells how a nymph called Daphne pleaded with mother earth for help in avoiding Apollo’s amorous advances. Mother Earth obliged by changing her into a bay-laurel tree for protection. From that time forward the heartbroken Apollo wore a laurel wreath in remembrance of her; and Zeus, who saw her transformation, vowed to always wear a wreath of laurel, and made the laurel tree part of all triumphal ceremonies, in her memory.

Some of the most impressive health benefits of bay leaves include their ability to detoxify the body, slow the aging process, speed wound healing, protect the body from bacterial infections, reducing inflammation, alleviating respiratory issues, and optimising digestion.

Bay leaves contain a rather unique phytonutrient called “parthenolide” which can quickly reduce inflammation and irritation when topically applied to affected areas. Therefore, the essential oil of bay is used in massage therapy to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism.

One of the least commonly known benefits of bay leaves is their naturally soothing quality. Linalool is often associated with thyme and basil, but it is also present in bay leaves, and can help to lower the level of stress hormones in the body, especially when used in aromatherapy.

Bay oil, together with olive oil is also one of the main ingredients in “Aleppo Soap”, a castile soap which is revered worldwide for its skin care properties.

Bay, with its warm, somewhat ‘woodsy’ character lends itself well to foods that require a long simmering time, like soups, stews and sauces, allowing the bay flavour a chance to permeate the dish. They appear in almost every soup and stew in Portuguese cooking; and in Morocco they are used in stews, tagines, and tomato sauces. Turkey produces the best bay leaves, and they are used there to flavour soups and stews, stocks, gravies and pickles. Turkish chefs make beautiful fish skewers with local fish, and bay features prominently in “Turkish-Spiced Halibut Skewers with Yogurt Sauce.”

In Italy, bay leaves, like rosemary, are free for the picking because the trees grow wild almost everywhere. They are used in many Italian dishes like: "Pasta e Fagioli" (pasta and beans); Italian style beef pot roast; penne pasta with chick peas; leeks with artichoke sauce and prune and olive chicken, to mention a few.

Bay is essential in dishes containing tomato, meat and beans, and also compliments potato and corn dishes well. For roasts, line the roasting pan with a bed of bay leaves. For roast chicken, stuff some bay leaves into the cavity. For grilling, lay a few bay leaves on top of and underneath whatever you’re cooking for a subtle hint of flavour.

Next time you make salad vinaigrette, make your standard recipe and then add a bay leaf and let it sit for about a day. For a creamy salad dressing, scald the cream with a bay leaf and let it sit for five to ten minutes before whisking the cooled cream into a lemon or red-wine vinaigrette. Bay leaves also impart a great flavour to white, cream or cheese sauces like “béchamel sauce” - a rich white sauce made with milk infused with herbs and other flavourings.

For baking bread, line the proofing bowl and the baking stone with a few bay leaves, also using one or two on top of the loaf for decoration. The leaves gently infuse the crust and they bake to dark gunmetal grey in colour. Dried and finely ground they are also frequently used in salt-free seasonings.

Chefs around the world have found the most inventive ways of using bay leaves to create amazing cocktails, desserts, and cakes like orange and bay leaf rice pudding, orange and bay leaf pound cake and bay leaf crème brûlée.  Be daring with bay leaves, and next time you make a chocolate ganache, let a leaf infuse in the cream before mixing it with the dark chocolate. The bay adds depth, and it’s a wonderful way to enrich the dessert without being too over the top! For pastry creams, custards, or puddings, scald the milk or cream with a bay leaf. They add depth of flavour to fruit poaching syrups, and you can even use them as a stencil to get a lovely leaf pattern when dusting cakes with confectioners’ sugar!

The very fragrant, leathery dark green leaves of bay are used mainly dried, but can also be used fresh. Fresh leaves have a more bitter taste than dried ones. Dried bay leaves will retain their flavour for about one year if they are stored correctly.  Because the leaves don't soften much in cooking, they are usually removed before eating.

The bay tree is a popular garden plant which is suitable for growing in pots or in the ground. If it is kept neatly clipped, the dark-green foliage can be trained to create stunning formal shapes (topiary), or perhaps simply to frame an entrance or patio. Because it grows easily in medium to large containers and responds well to pruning, a bay tree is suitable for even small gardens or balconies.

Bay trees grow well throughout South Africa and are reasonably tolerant of salty sea spray, but do better in coastal regions if planted in a sheltered position. They are fully hardy to -5°C but in severely cold regions young trees will need protection until they are well established. In cool to warm areas they will thrive in full sun, but in very hot, dry, or tropical regions, bay trees will appreciate some shade during the hottest part of the day. During the growing season, water moderately during dry spells. Watering is especially important in hot and dry summer regions. Bay trees will grow in soils, ranging from very acidic to slightly alkaline. They prefer a fertile, well-drained soil but will adapt to most garden soils with good drainage.

If you are growing a bay tree in a pot, select quite a large pot to accommodate good growth, and ensure that you use a potting soil which is fertile and which drains well. In hot summer weather ensure that plants in containers do not dry out completely and feed monthly with a balanced fertiliser. Potted plants are less hardy than those growing in the ground, so in very cold regions cut back on watering in winter, and if necessary, cover or move the pot into a more sheltered spot.

Semi-hardwood cuttings taken in late summer strike roots well and layering is often successful, but slower than cuttings. Bay can also be propagated from seed collected in the autumn. Remove the fleshy outer casing and sow as soon as possible. Dry seed can be soaked in warm water for 24 hours before sowing to speed up germination. 

Well cared for bay trees are unlikely to suffer from serious pests and diseases.  Most problems are caused by overwatering and exposure to cold and windy conditions.

Watch out for scale insects attached to the leaves and stems, this is especially relevant if your plant is growing in a very sheltered position, as this creates a perfect microclimate for scale insects. A good sign that you have scale is the presence of ants, who farm the insects for the honeydew they secrete. A twice yearly spray with a mineral oil should keep scale under control.

Spots on the leaves are often caused by waterlogged roots, or wet weather conditions. For older container grown specimens, spots on the leaves usually indicate that the potting soil has become old and tired. Dig out a couple centimetres of soil from the top of the pot and fill with fresh soil and a balanced feeder. You can also repot your plant in spring.

Peeling bark, especially on the lower main stems may follow a very harsh winter. The cause is uncertain, but extreme winter cold and fluctuating soil moisture levels are likely causes. Though the damage looks alarming it does not have to be fatal. If the rest of the plant is growing normally or recovering from winter damage, no action is needed. However, if the growth above the damaged area is dead, remove the dead parts by cutting down to healthy wood (i.e. green under the bark), or, if necessary, even close to soil level. Recovery from pruning lower down or soil level often occurs.

Caution: Bay leaves are not a widely known allergenic, but contact dermatitis and eczema breakouts have been sporadically reported. If you are allergic to other members of the Lauraceae family, you may be allergic to bay leaves as well.

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