In ancient Greece and Rome, triumphant competitors were crowned with bay or laurel (name used interchangeably in some places) leaves, hence the association with the victorious, the glorious and those possessing tremendous wisdom. Garlands of bay leaves were given to triumphant Olympians as well (as opposed to medals). The word baccalaureate, for example, hails from the word laurel. And here I was thinking â€œlaurelâ€ was just an indispensable ingredient in my chicken and pork adobo! A couple of years ago I chanced upon a scrawny seven foot tall â€œlaurelâ€ or bay leaf tree at a garden club plant sale. The plant wasnâ€™t too healthy but I debated whether I should buy it. At P1,200, it was a tough call as dried bay leaves are fairly common and economical. I didnâ€™t buy it and regretted my decision for several years afterwards. I have come across dozens of recipes (particularly Mediterranean) that call for fresh bay leaves and often read cookbook tips that old dried bay leaves are a shadow of their freshly dried cousins. Boohoo indeed. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when wandering around the Greenhills tiangge (flea market) last week, I spied several small but very healthy looking â€œlaurelâ€ or bay tree cuttings for sale in the plant section near the central fountain. Yahoo! I bought one plant that was just 8-10 inches tall for an outrageously expensive PHP250! Doesnâ€™t it look good enough to cook with?
The Sweet Bay Tree (Laurus Nobilis) is part of the Lauraceae (Laurel) family. In some countries, like the Philippines, the name laurel has taken root as the common name but it really is a misnomer and a potentially dangerous one as only Sweet Bay Trees yield edible leavesâ€¦ all other laurel trees are actually poisonous! Some sources say Bay Trees are native to Asia but because they have been in the Mediterranean for so long they are also commonly credited to be native to that region. At any rate, there are several edible varieties of sweet bay around the worldâ€¦ with slightly different types of trees abundant in Indonesia, India, the Mediterranean and California. Bay leaves are an important ingredient for several national cuisines. In France, for example, bay leaves are a critical part of a bouquet garni, together with parsley and thyme. The bouquet garni, in turn is necessary for a really yummy bouillabaisse. Bay leaves seem to bring out the best of all the other spices in the dish as they tend to modulate the flavors.
The cuttings for sale at the tiangge were taken from a much bigger and more established tree. The plant I purchased seems extremely healthy and the leaves of this already exhibit the fine traits of a much older bay leaf plant â€“ oval, medium green leaves with a slightly different color and silvery finish to the underside of the leaves. Bay leaves differ in flavor and intensity based on their origin with Mediterranean bay leaf tasting sweeter and milder than their California cousins. My prized find remains in its plastic pot until I find a suitable place to plant it. As soon as I get more leaves and I get the courage to cut them off the plant, I will try cooking with fresh bay leaves and will let you know if it really makes a difference! Source: The Oxford Companion to Food