The sweet bay tree is an evergreen Mediterranean shrub which is grown both as an ornamental plant as well as for its leaves. The leaves, both fresh and dried, are used as a herb and flavouring agent in cooking.
There are two major varieties of bay leaves --Turkish or meditteranean (1 to 2 inch long oval) and California (2 to 3 inch long narrow) leaves. Of these, the Turkish is said to have the better flavour.
There is also a third leaf, called the Indian bay leaf(Cinnamomum tamala) Tej Patta, or Tej Paat literally meaning “pungent leaf”. While this is called a bay leaf, it is not strictly true. It belongs to the laurel family, though not to the same genus. It was used widely during the Roman Empire, both in perfumery and in cooking, but fell out of use in later times.
Synonyms for bayleaf include Laurus nobilis in Latin, and Sweet bay and Laurel in English.
The bay tree is a species of the laurel tree or laurel bush. The Bay tree is variously known as the bay laurel or the true laurel. In ancient Rome it was used to make laurel wreaths to crown poets and victorious soldiers as a sign of honour.
It is also probably the origin of the word “bachelor” as in the title given for university degrees. The word may be traced from the word Laurel Berry leading to the literal translation “bacca- laureus” and eventually to the present day “Baccalaureate”.
Current culinary use
As mentioned, the most common use of the bay leaf is as a flavouring agent in cookery.
The leaves have a slightly bitter smell and are available fresh or dried. The aroma is more noticeable in fresh leaves. The dried leaves are available either whole or powdered.
In European cooking, bay leaves are used to flavour meat dishes, milk puddings, pâtés, force meat of different kinds, terrines, stocks, stews and sweet white sauces. The herb, unlike many others, lends itself to prolonged cooking and stewing.
Bay is one of the ingredients in bouquet garni, an essential aromatic mix in continental and especially French cuisine. The traditional french mixture contains parsley, peppercorns, thyme and bay leaf and is used to flavour stocks, sauces and variety of other savoury dishes. It is also used to flavour court bouillon which literally translates as "short- boil". The court bouillon is a poaching liquid, generally used to cook fish and sometimes light poultry like chicken. Some form of acid, usually vinegar or wine, is added to this liquid. The acid acts as a coagulater for the protein in the meat. The liquid is often subsequently reduced and thereafter used as a base for the veloute sauce served with the same meat.
Another traditional method of using bay leaves in flavouring is in the form of a cloute’. A cloute’ is a whole, peeled, raw onion, wrapped in a bay leaf and studded with cloves. It is traditionally used in French classical cooking to flavour white sauce, milk sauce or béchamel sauce. The technique is to scald the milk that is to be used to prepare the sauce with the cloute’ in it. The milk is left to cool with the cloute’ steeping in it till it is ready to use for the sauce. The cloute’is eventually discarded.
The Indian bay leaf or Tej Patta is very widely used today in North Indian cooking. The herb was introduced here during the Mughal Empire. It is typically used to flavour curries, especially meat curries and also rice dishes, from which it is removed for aesthetic reasons after the cooking is completed.
Caution should be excercised when cooking with bay leaf. The edge of the leaf is sharp and may result in internal injuries if ingested whole. It is therefore advisable to remove it after the cooking process is complete.
Other current uses
The volatile oil of bay is employed in the perfume industry and its wood is used as an inlay wood in marquetry.
The leaves, berries and essential oil (extracted from the berries) of the bay tree have stimulating and narcotic properties. The leaves exude heat and cause perspiration. The excessive intake of the extract of the leaves or their powder causes vomiting.
Modern medicine does not use bay leaves or their essential oil. It is used marginally in veterinary science. Bay was earlier used to treat hysteria, lack of periods, and pain in the abdomen associated with gaseous distention. In traditional societies bay berries were used to induce abortions. Oil of Baysor Oleum Lauri was used as an external pain reliever and a liniament for muscular pulls and strains as well as bruising. An infusion of the leaves was used to address gastric complaint and intestinal obstructions. The infusion was also said to help in fevers and flatulence.
Preparation and handling
Bay leaves must be dried on a rack in a cool dry place. The leaves may be stored only when they are completely dry. If not, they tend to develop fungal growths. If stored in an airtight container, away from direct sunlight, the leaves will keep their aroma for upto a year.
Since only one or two leaves may be needed in a dish, it is advisable to purchase smaller quantities and use them quickly.
The Sweet Bay or true Laurel should not be confused with other trees and shrubs, also called laurels. A plant that it is often confused with it is the poisonous Cherry laurel, which produces white flowers and small red berries which contain prussic acid.
The Book of Ingredients: Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey; Penguin/ Mermaid Books 1993
--Radhikab70 03:10, 3 August 2007 (EDT)