The Mediterranean bay laurel, lauris nobilis, has a long history, not only as a spice.
Lauris, from the latin laudere, means to praise. Bay, an Anglo Saxon term, means crown. The “crown of praise” made of bay leaves has been used to crown victorious generals and recognize poets of caliber since the time of ancient Greece. “Winning your laurels”, earning your baccalaureate (berried bay branches) and “resting on your laurels” are all expressions that originate with the bay laurel.
There are several varieties of bay leaf used as a culinary spice.
The photograph depicts West Indian bay leaf ( Pimenta racemosa) which is used as a culinary spice in the Caribbean, but is also used to produce bay rum cologne.
The California bay leaf ( Umbellularia californica) has a stronger, slightly more bitter flavor than the Mediterranean bay leaf.
Indian bay leaves, larger than bay laurel leaves, have a cinnamon and clove flavor that compliments tomato sauce and lentils.
Mexican bay leaf (Litsea glaucescens) is silvery and more delicate in flavor than Mediterranean bay leaf and is used in sauces, soups and meat dishes in Mexican cooking.
Many consider turkish bay leaves (lauris nobilis) to be the best in the world, given in part to an ideal growing climate which produces a bay leaf with a marvelous depth of flavor.
Bay leaves of all types reach peak flavor two weeks after picking. After a year, they lose much of their flavor. Ever wonder what flavor bay leaves bring to soups and stews ? If your bay leaves have been in your spice cupboard for a few years, the answer is not much.
So, why do we add bay leaves to soups and stews? Bay leaves create a subtle aroma, but it’s purpose is to “marry” other flavors in a recipe.
If you want to experience the flavor of bay leaf, boil a leaf in a cup of water. The resulting tea will give provide the answer to the taste and aroma of bay leaves.