The Herb Garden
The joy of growing and using herbs
by Rachel McLeod
“Add a bay leaf.” How often have we read these instructions, and always I
wonder what size? My bay leaves vary from leaves an inch (2.5 cm) long to
monsters as much as five-and-a-half inches (14 cm) from tip to stem. And of
course, there are all sizes in between as well as all the broken bits. Dried bay
leaves are very brittle.
Then, some hours later, “...remove the bay leaf and serve.” Why did we always
have to remove the bay leaf and not all the other herbs we have included? Is it
because the bay leaf, like the bouquet garni (which is also removed before
serving and in which the bay leaf is a vital ingredient) is not particularly
beautiful if it lands on your plate, and might be a source of embarrassment to a
guest who felt they should eat everything in front of them? No, the reason is
safety. Although a bay leaf will release its oil and flavors into the stew or
soup slowly over many hours, it does not actually disintegrate and it has been
known to cause choking. Also, it is wise to use whole leaves, as chopped or
broken bay leaves have sharp edges which have been known to cause cuts and
scratches in sensitive throats. It is a precautionary habit to remove the bay
leaf from any dish before serving.
It occurs to me as I write this that although I know the sweet, spicy aroma
of the bay leaf and associate it with lovely soups and stews, I could not really
pick out its particular taste. So I have made a cup of bay leaf tea and will sip
it and try to analyze the flavor. This is a good way of learning what flavors
different herbs contribute to your dishes, and it will help to gauge the amounts
needed for the perfect dish.
Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) is not hardy in Canada and has to be grown
in pots so that it can be protected in winter. Fortunately, it is a fairly slow
grower. Even then, a 25-year-old bay tree is too large and heavy to lift without
mechanical help. In its native Mediterranean environment, and even in the south
of England, it will grow to 40 feet (25 meters). We once stayed on a cliff edge
in the Dordogne where there was a young bay tree clinging to the crevices in the
rock. I have never smelled such aromatic leaves and even when dried they were
far superior to the pot grown ones. The best solution here would be to plant a
cutting in the soil floor of a greenhouse where it would receive more nutrients
than in a pot. If it was kept well pruned, it would be many years before it
outgrew the greenhouse.
Bay trees can be grown from seed but the germination may take six months or a
year. The most usual method of propagation is by cuttings. These are slow too
and may take three months to root. Using a rooting hormone will help and the
cutting must never be allowed to dry out.
Although the greatest use for bay leaves is probably in savory dishes such as
soups and stews, they are also recommended to give flavor to custards and dishes
such as rice pudding. Historically, though, the bay leaves were important to
both the Greeks and the Romans; they were used in wreaths to honor poets,
scholars and athletes. In fact, the leaves are used today to decorate the
winners of the Boston Marathon. The bay leaves are seen as wreaths on most
statues or effigies of Roman Emperors. This was not necessarily because of the
eminence of these individuals, but because the leaves ensured protection from
lightening. The flower and herb wreaths and decorations which have been so
popular in the last few years are greatly enhanced by the use of bay leaves,
especially at Christmas. They are an excellent addition to Christmas potpourri
and their spicy scent will last for weeks.
There is also a growing interest in the use of herbs as preservatives instead
of chemicals. Bay leaves are recommended for use in canisters of flour or grains
to keep moths and weevils away.
As I write this, I have been sipping the bay leaf tea I made and still find
it difficult to describe the flavor. It has a slight astringent taste and does
make a very pleasant tea. It reminded my husband of Chinese tea. Further
research tells me that the tea is good for all the organs of digestion and will
promote appetite and act as a tonic. I shall certainly make bay leaf tea from
time to time now. It is quick, easy, healthful and has a touch of mystery to its
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.