What is Bay? How to Use Bay

Sweet Bay, Sweet Laurel

FR: Laurier

GER: Lorbeer

IT: Alloro, Lauro

SP: Laural

BOT: Laurus nobilis

FAM: Lauraceae

What is Bay? How to Use Bay Photo Gallery




The bay is a small tree, usually grown as a bush, although it can reach sixty feet in height in perfect conditions. It has tough leaves, and in warm climates produces berries resembling small olives in appearance. Although rather like the common Portugal laurel, bay leaves are more glossy and have a characteristic sweet balsamic scent when crushed. Trees should be planted either in late September or early April. They require a sheltered, sunny position and will not usually survive in the northern parts of Britain or America. Bay trees are often grown in tubs which should be filled with equal quantities of sand, loam and peat, top dressed with well-rotted manure and never allowed to dry out.

Bay is said to have come originally from Asia Minor, but was established all round the Mediterranean at a very early date. It was the laurel of the ‘crown of laurel leaves’, symbol of wisdom and glory in ancient Greece and Rome, worn by victors and emperors, and popularly supposed to keep away lightning.

As a culinary herb, bay may be used either fresh or dried. The fresh leaves are rather bitter, as well as strongly scented. Some people prefer bay after it has been wilted for a few days. Then the bitterness has gone, but the scent remains strong. Very old dried bay leaves, as are so often sold, lose their strength and are of no use whatever.

Bay is used all over the world but is quite essential in French and Mediterranean cooking -indeed, in all good continental cooking. It is a traditional part of the bouquet garni and goes into marinades, court bouillon, pickles and olives. It is even packed round liquorice and in boxes of dried figs to discourage weevils. Indeed, if bay has only a short entry here, it is quite out of proportion to its culinary importance; it seems to go into almost everything. No kitchen should exist without bay leaves, and they should be used as a matter of habit.

Besides its use in savoury dishes, bay may be used boiled in the milk to flavour creams and custards. This will give a dominant flavour of bay, one used more commonly in the past than it is today. Bay berries are pressed or distilled to give a thick greenish oil used in some liqueurs.

Bay should not be confused with the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) as it is in some blogs. This has a bitter almond flavour. (See almond.)

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