This herb - the icon of Italian cooking - is an old favourite, frequently popped into cooking with little thought - almost as a good luck talisman. But it does add a unique and pleasant flavour.
Laurel tree with new growth
Ripening laurel fruits
Dried bay leaves
Probably Western Asia.
The laurel tree grows all over the Mediterranean region, with Turkey one of the main exporters. Due to poor frost-resistance, laurel is not generally native to more Northern regions, although cultivars are frequently found in cities and other warmer locations.
Leaves. Industrially, laurel oil is prepared from the fruits, which may also be used as a spice.
Lauraceae (laurel family).
Aromatic and slightly bitter.
The botanical genus name laurus and English "laurel" are derived from the Latin name of the tree, laurus. Almost all languages of Europe have related names, e.g. German lorbeer, Swedish lager, Italian alloro and Portuguese louro. The origin of laurus is not known with certainty but it is neither related to Latin laus "praise" nor loaned from Greek.
In the Ancient Greek tongue, the plant was named daphnē after the nymph Daphne who turned into a laurel shrub to escape the persecution of Apollo. Bay leaves are called dafin in Romanian, dafni in Modern Greek and defne in Turkish. There are also names meaning "leaves of Daphne", such as Hebrew aley Daphna and Bulgarian Dafinov list.
Species name nobilis is Latin for "noble". The English term "bay leaf" (Middle English baye, Old French baie) derives from the Latin bacca "berry", referring to the fruits.
Bay leaves were considered holy and were associated with Apollo in Ancient Greece. Winners of the Olympic Games were originally decorated with a wreath of olive twigs, but this changed to laurel after the Pythian Games, conducted in honour of Apollo. Roman Emperors made use of laurel wreaths as a symbol of Apollo and bay leaves were a popular spice in Roman cookery. Laurus nobilis spread widely across Europe in medieval times when it was grown in accordance with the Capitulare de Villis of Charlemagne.
Today, bay leaves are a common flavouring in all Western countries and are used for soups, stews, sauces, pickles and sausages. In addition, several fish dishes profit greatly from bay leaves. In contrast to the majority of leaf spices, bay leaves can be cooked for prolonged time without much loss of aroma. Fresh or dried bay leaves frequently appear in bouquet garni.
Fresh bay leaves are very strongly aromatic but also bitter. The bitterness is significantly reduced and flavour improved by quick drying, after plucking and sorting without exposure to sunlight. High-quality bay leaves are recognised by their strong aroma and their bright green colour. Bay leaves can be stored for a year, after which they lose their fragrance, turn brown and taste bitter.
The laurel fruits are less known, although they appear as part of commercial spice mixtures. Because of their robust taste, they fit best to strong sauces and gravies and are excellent with venison (together with juniper). Because of the popularity of bay leaves in the West, many exotic leaf spices are commonly known as "bay leaves" although not botanically or culinarily related. In Asia, the Indian bay leaf comes from a relative of cinnamon native to the Himalayas and Indonesian bay leaves stem from a tree of the myrtle family.
There are other "bay leaves" in the West including the aromatic Californian bay leaf, which is rarely found because of potential health hazards, and Mexican bay leaf which has little commercial value. West Indian bay leaves, which stem from a close relative of allspice, yield West Indian bay oil.