Thursday, February 23, 2006


By Constance de LaRose

The Noble Bay or Laurel Tree

Bay -- also known as sweet bay and laurel -- is related to camphor and sassafras trees. It’s botanical name, Laurus nobilis, means noble bay.()

Bay trees -- evergreens which range from small, bush size plants to 40-foot specimens -- are native to Asia Minor and the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The tree has an olive green or reddish bark and produces dark purple, grape-sized berries. The two to three-inch dried leaves are stiff and brittle with dark green, shiny tops and lighter undersides. Noble bay smells balsamic and sweet, and tastes spicy and bitter.

Cultivation and Harvest

In many warm parts of the world, bay is cultivated both as a spice and ornamental. Bay leaves are picked early in the day throughout the year. They are dried in a warm area, for about 15 days, protected from sunlight. A light weight is used to keep the leaves flat during drying.

Included in the display are two examples, the first, leaves which were dried 10 months ago and are taking on the gray coloring and the second leaves which were dried 15 days ago. Both of these samples are leaves from the tree on display.

To preserve their color and flavor, store bay leaves in airtight containers, away from light. Up to 60% of the chlorophyll can be lost after one year of storage, giving the leaf a gray color.
[Note: Since this is just the written documentation for this competition entry, these display items are not available.]

Though the bay tree is traditionally and most frequently cultivated in the outdoors in warm Mediterranean countries, records from monasteries() as far north as England, in the 15th century, list small bay trees cultivated in pots in the herbarium.

A Glance at the Past

Bay has long been linked with nobility, and has long signified success and renown. The champions of the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. were awarded bay garlands, and wreaths of bay were used to crown kings, priests, poets, prophets, heroes and victors of athletic and scholarly contests in Greece and Rome. Graduates of medieval universities were decorated with fruiting sprigs of laurel — they were bacca laurea coronati or rather bacca laureati — hence the modern baccalaureate and laureate.() The distinction "poet laureate" comes from the reference to Apollo, patron of the fine arts who had a special affinity for the laurel tree.

As the story goes, Apollo loved the nymph Daphne and pursued her relentlessly. Cupid shot Daphne with an arrow, which caused her to hate Apollo; finally the gods turned her into a bay laurel tree. Apollo declared the tree sacred and thereafter wore a wreath of bay leaves on his head in remembrance of Daphne.() The Greeks came to believe that the tree would protect them from natural disasters, especially lightning. Bay trees in Greece are still sometimes called Daphne trees.

Bay perks up tomato sauces, meats, fish, and bean and grain dishes. One or two leaves is adequate flavoring for most dishes of six servings -- add to water when stewing chicken or poaching fish, or while cooking soups or stews. Bay leaf should be added early on, because it takes a while for its flavor to permeate the food. Be sure to remove the leaves before serving; they are sharp and can be dangerous if accidentally swallowed. French cuisine and cuisine of the Mediterranean region depend heavily upon bay leaf. Bay leaf is an ingredient in French bouillabaisse and bouillon, bouquet garni and many pickling blends.

However, care should be taken in using bay leaves in cooking where the dish will be served to pregnant women. Bay leaf infusion was used in period to "bring down a woman’s courses"() which means that they can cause a miscarriage.

From the days of ancient Rome to modern times many households would add several bay leaves to containers of stored grains and beans to repel grain beetles, and add them to boxes of stored clothing to repel moths.


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