If you’ve always found those brittle, greyish-green leaves bought in supermarkets a little depressing, rather plant an evergreen bay tree and harvest the pungent leaves yourself.
The Greeks – and later the Romans – used the leaves of the bay tree to create shiny laurel wreaths with which to honour their top athletes, war heroes, poets and brainboxes – the word ‘baccalaureate’, as in bachelor’s degree, means ‘laurel berries’, which are symbolic of successful studies.
Centuries later, the British and Italians began to use these leaves to ward off evil spirits. Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) are hardy, evergreen shrubs that originally came from Asia, even though many books and websites say they are indigenous to the Mediterranean area, probably because they have adapted so well to that climate.
They grow very slowly, reach a height of 3-4m and spread up to 2m wide. Bay leaves have a distinctive aroma and a sharp, slightly bitter taste. They are frequently used in French, Moroccan, Turkish and Mediterranean cooking to flavour soups, stews, stocks, gravies, pickles, and dishes containing tomato, meat and beans. Together with thyme and parsley, the bay leaf also forms part of a classic bouquet garni.
- Bay trees will grow in almost any soil but they prefer fertile soil to which plenty of compost and well-decomposed kraal manure have been added. The soil must drain well but at the same time not dry out completely.
- The trees – it’s better to buy one because cuttings are a pain – like to grow in a sunny, relatively sheltered spot. They will grow in full sun or semi-shade, but do considerably better in warmer climates. They are also ideal for big containers and can be pruned into decorative shapes.
- Harvest the leaves at any time. Snip off a few branches on a warm, dry day and hang them upside down for four days in the kitchen window.
- If you keep the dry leaves in a dark, airtight, container and store this in a cool, dry place in the kitchen, the flavour of the leaves will last for at least a year.
Pests and plagues
- Bay trees are hardy and the most common problem is scale insects that appear as white and brown ‘scales’ under the leaves. Rub the leaves clean as soon as you notice the first scale insects, or enquire at your nursery about the best spray. Remember to wash the leaves thoroughly before using them in the kitchen.
- Bay leaves are a natural repellent for ants and other crawling insects – in the Chinese packaging industry, for instance, they are used to keep weevils out of rice. Place a few leaves or twigs in containers that you use for storing pasta, rice or flour. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work on the trees themselves because the ants love the sweet, black secretion that the scale insects leave behind.
- Add a bay leaf while cooking cabbage to prevent that rather off-putting smell from permeating the kitchen. This also works well for Brussels sprouts.