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The bay leaf

Stews, soups, braises and other delicious cold weather treats always seem to include the same ingredient: the bay leaf – leaving Tightwad wondering just why that is? Some quick research has yielded the following information.

According to legend the Delphi oracle chewed bay leaves, or sniffed the smoke of burning leaves to promote her visionary trances. Bay, or laurel, was famed in ancient Greece and Rome. Emperors, heroes and poets wore wreaths of laurel leaves. The Greek word for laurel is dhafni, named for the myth of the nymph Daphne, who was changed into a laurel tree by Gaea, who transformed her to help her escape Apollo’s attempted rape. Apollo made the tree sacred and thus it became a symbol of honour. The association with honour and glory continue today; we have poet laureates (Apollo was the God of poets), and bacca-laureate means “laurel berries” which signifies the completion of a bachelor degree. Doctors were also crowned with laurel, which was considered a cure-all. Triumphant athletes of ancient Greece were awarded laurel garlands and were given to winners at Olympic games since 776 BC Today, grand prix winners are bedecked with laurel wreaths. It was also believed that the laurel provided safety from the deities responsible for thunder and lightning. The Emperor Tiberius always wore a laurel wreath during thunderstorms. –

Picked fresh bay leaves have little flavour. It’s the drying of the leaves over several weeks that develops the taste. When dried the fragrance is herbal, slightly floral and somewhat similar to thyme and oregano. Bay leaves have anti fungal and antibacterial properties. Scattered leaves can be used as an insect repellent and discourage the growth of mold.
There are several varieties of bay, all with different subtleties, including the Californian, the Mediterranean, the Indian, the West Indian, the Mexican and the Indonesian.  A fixture in many cuisines, it’s no wonder it can be found throughout the world.
The leaves are mostly used whole and removed before serving, or are crushed or ground before cooking, imparting a stronger flavour. If put in muslin cloth during cooking ground bay can be removed before serving. Dried leaves should be an olive green colour and can be stored in a dark place for up to two years. Brown leaves have lost their flavour.
That said, Tightwad will now rest on her laurels. Pun intended!


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