“Neyther falling sickness, neyther devyll, wyll infest or hurt one in that place where a bay tree is,” wrote Thomas Lupton in 1575, referring to the putative ability of the bay laurel to offer protection from misfortune. The Roman emperor, Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD), would always take refuge under his bed wearing a crown of bay leaves during a thunderstorm as he was convinced this would protect him from the thunder and lightning.
The death of a bay tree was also historically regarded as a portent of evil or pending disaster. In Richard II, Shakespeare wrote:
‘Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay.
The bay trees in our country are all wither’d.
In mythology, bay leaves were worn as an amulet to ward off evil and were burned and scattered as a strewing herb in exorcism and purification rituals. Leaves placed under a pillow are supposed to induce inspiration and prophetic dreams. One old legend maintains that if a wish is written on a bay leaf, which is then burned, the wish will come true.
In Greek mythology, Apollo the sun god fell in love with Daphne who had been pierced by one of Cupid’s darts causing her to dislike Apollo. She spurned his advances and Daphne’s father, Peneus, changed her into a bay tree to help her escape. Apollo knelt before the tree and declared it forever sacred. Henceforth he wore a crown of laurel leaves on his head in remembrance of his unrequited passion for Daphne. From this myth, somewhat curiously, the bay came to symbolize glory and honor. The ancient Greeks crowned Olympic winners, scholars and poets with bay wreaths and they are still today placed on Boston Marathon winners.
In the garden the bay tree is a tender perennial and extended freezing temperatures will kill it. Although the bay will grow to 20 meters in its native Mediterranean habitat, in a temperate or cooler climate it is best grown in a pot where it can be moved to a protected area during the coldest months.
Bay laurel is used medicinally primarily to treat upper digestive tract disorders, having a similar effect as spearmint. It is also used to ease muscular aches and pains. The following recipe for Laurel Bay Mint Bath will ease and relax tired muscles after a hard day:
- ½ cup of dried mint leaves
- 1 cup of chopped bay leaves
- 1 tsp. Coconut oil
- 1 tsp. Almond extract.
Toss all the ingredients in a mixing bowl then place in a piece of cheesecloth, one-foot square. Tie with string and submerge it under very hot running bath water. Allow the bath water to cool to a comfortable temperature while the bouquet infuses. Relax in the bath for at least 30 minutes, adding warm water to maintain a comfortable temperature.
Bay leaves are an effective insect repellant and can be placed in closets and drawers and even into a flour canister to deter weevils.
Unlike most herbs, bay is stronger semi-fresh than completely dried, with its flavor and aroma peaking between three and seven days after picking. Bay contributes more aroma than flavor to food and differs again from most herbs by not losing its flavor with long cooking. Bay leaves should be removed from dishes before serving. A dinner guest will not remember your culinary skills if he or she gets a bay leaf stuck in their throat.
Bouquet garni is de rigueur in French cuisine and bay leaves are de rigueur in bouquet garni. For convenience prepare your bouquet garni in bulk ahead of time so you have lots on hand. Following is a convenient recipe for this:
- 12 whole bay leaves;
- 12 tsp. whole celery seeds;
- 24 whole cloves;
- 36 peppercorns;
- 12 Tbsp. dried parsley;
- 6 tsp. thyme.
Divide all the ingredients equally on to 12, four-inch square pieces of cheesecloth. Tie with heavy white kitchen twine, leaving a long string for easy removal.
The taste of bay is tangy and slightly peppery. It enhances the flavor of just about everything, but especially soups, stews and tomato-based dishes. Pot roasts and shellfish should almost never be served without bay. It will even improve the taste of custard sauces if the milk is scalded with one or two leaves.