Is there a kitchen without its small stash of bay leaves? Rarely available fresh, they are sold in small boxes and seem to last forever. French dishes pair thyme and bay leaf. Pickling recipes invariably call for a leaf or two.
And bay leaves get broken into stews or lend a light aromatic touch to chicken soup with the author cautioning to remove it before serving the dish.
I like bay leaves. If you chew one, the flavour is weak and tastes of mild cedar, but the aroma that dried bay leaves lend to food is distinct, almost perfumed without being cloying.
Bay leaves come with a remarkable pedigree. This herb, which is also known as laurel, is suffused with a wonderful Roman legend. The mortal Daphne, was fleeing a lustful god Apollo. She prayed to the gods to hide her beauty and was turned into a laurel tree. Apollo decided that she would remain renowned and a wreath of laurel leaves became the symbol for crowning a hero. The leaf was also associated with curing illness and warding off evil spirits. Those who earned medical degrees were awarded laurel bay wreaths known as Bacca Lauri. The recipients were called baccalaureates and, later on, bachelors.
Bay leaves can grow in most climates. The two principal varieties are Turkish with short oval leaves and Californian with longer, narrower ones. The flavours are similar and overusing either can make foods taste bitter. Bay leaves should be stored covered and away from light.