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Herb of champions / November 07, 2012
Bay, also called sweet laurel, is an aromatic herb with many uses. Native to the Mediterranean area, the Latin words of its botanical name, Laurus (bay tree) and nobilis (renowned), aptly describes this perennial evergreen. Bay is known as ezrach in Hebrew and rand in Arabic. For centuries bay leaf crowns were used to honor kings, priests, military heroes and victors of athletic and scholarly contests. Believed to have protective powers, the fragrant herb was used to decorate temples and churches for both weddings and funerals. Flavorful sweet laurel was incorporated into cuisines throughout the Middle East, Europe and, eventually, the “New World”. Bay has a wide variety of uses to this day. Present day cooks and herbal crafters regard bay as an essential component in any herb collection. As the 17th century botanist, Thomas Parkinson, wrote “The bay leaves are of a necessary use as any other in the garden or orchard, for they both serve pleasure and profit … from cradle to the grave we have still use of, we still have need of it”.

Special Thought – Bay is the herb of champions, symbolizing glory and triumph. Break a bay leaf in half, take a whiff of its wonderful aroma and ponder on a triumph you have recently accomplished.

A Biblical reference is found in Psalm 37:35 (KJV), “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree.” Growing in the wild during Biblical times, bay could reach the height of 60 feet. The tree’s luxuriant evergreen growth became a symbol of greatness, honor, prosperity and power. This passage deals with the riddle of the seeming prosperity of the wicked. David’s advice is that instead of worrying about things a person cannot change; focus on attitudes that can be changed.

Bay’s symbolism of reward and honor had romantic beginnings. The Greek sun god, Apollo, had fallen in love with the beautiful nymph Daphne and he relentlessly pursued her. Daphne wanted no part of the sun god’s attention since Cupid had shot her with a love-repelling arrow causing her to hate Apollo. To help Daphne escape Apollo’s pursuit, her father, Peneus, changed her into a laurel tree. Discovering her transformation, Apollo knelt at the tree and declared it eternally sacred. In remembrance and dedication to Daphne, he wore a wreath of laurel leaves upon his head. In 776 BC, at the first Olympics, champions were presented with laurel garlands.

Throughout the centuries the herb seemed to have supernatural powers. It was supposed to give soothsayers and poets prophetic power. The oracles at Delphi held bay leaves between their lips when making prophesies. Protections offered by the herb included warding off wizards and witches, guarding against misfortune and preventing people and houses from being struck by lighting. It was said that during thunderstorms, the Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BC – AD 37) could always be found under his bed with a laurel wreath upon his head.

Belief in the herb’s protective powers continued into the Middle Ages and beyond. In 1575, in Thomas Lupton’s Book Of Notable Things, the author stated “neyther falling sickness, neyther devyll, wyll infest or hurt one in that place where a bay tree is.” The British herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, in the 17th century, wrote that a man standing near a bay tree would not be hurt by the devil, witches or thunder and lighting.

The herb was held in such regard that the death of a bay tree was considered an evil omen. In his play, Richard II, Shakespeare wrote the bay trees in the country had withered and the king was thought to be dead. After the bay trees in the city of Padua, Italy had died in 1629, a pestilence broke out.

A standard infusion of bay (1 tsp dried or 2 tsp fresh leaves steeped in 1 cup of boiling water for 10 - 15 minutes) is thought to be useful in easing indigestion and relieving flatulence. The more widely known medicinal use is as a healing agent for aches and pains in muscles and joints. Rub a little bay oil on sore muscles or joints for relief. Bay oil is also said to benefit sprains, bruises and skin rashes. Studies suggest the essential oil may have bactericidal and fungicidal properties.

Bay is an aromatic evergreen tree with a shiny gray bark. A slow growing, medium size tree, it can reach the height of 50 feet in warmer climates. The leaves are a shiny dark green, thick and leathery with an elliptical shape. Plant hardiness is zones 8 – 10. Bay prefers a moderately, rich, well-drained soil and can grow in either full or partial sun. Sensitive to frost and cold winds, bay plants in this area should be grown in pots and brought indoors for the winter. Bay is an attractive container plant that normally reaches 2 – 6 feet. Fresh leaves can be used year-round. However, one member has had a bay tree growing in her yard for at least 4 years with no special care. Other members say that bringing a bay indoors is sure to attract insect pests. Gathering leaves for drying is best done in high summer for optimum flavor and essential oil content. Pick leaves early in the day. Drying takes about 15 days and while drying, the leaves should be covered with boards or some other object to prevent curling. Store dried leaves in air-tight jars. Bay has a reputation for being hard to propagate so buying a young tree from a nursery may be the best way to add this herb to your garden.

Worldwide, bay leaves are used in classic and contemporary cuisines as a flavoring for meat, poultry, seafood, rice and vegetables. They are used in stews, soups, casseroles, marinades, pickling brines and sauces. The leaves are strongly flavored, tough to eat and can become stuck in the throat, so remember to remove them before serving. Bay leaf’s use in the kitchen goes beyond just cooking; it can be a natural insect repellent. Put some dried leaves in the flour or sugar bowl, with whole grains or stuff them in the clean toe of an old pair of stockings and use as a sachet in pantries. Tape some leaves to the sides of kitchen cupboards, drawers and shelves.

Fish Chowder

The Pleasure of Herbs

6 slices of bacon

2 large onions, thinly sliced

4 medium potatoes, diced

2 cups water

1 bay leaf

1 lb flounder, haddock, or cod cut into 1 inch chunks (check for bones)

(frozen fish should be thawed before using)

1 tsp. each garlic powder, thyme and pepper

1 qt. milk

3 Tbsp flour blended with 3 tablespoons water

2 Tbsp butter

1 Tbsp parsley

In a 3 quart saucepan, cook bacon until crisp; remove bacon, crumble and set aside.

Cook onion in bacon drippings until golden. Add potatoes, water and bay leaf. Boil gently, covered, until potatoes are almost tender (about 15 minutes).

Add fish, garlic, thyme and pepper; simmer gently until fish is cooked (about 5 minutes).

Meanwhile, gently scald milk and stir in flour mixture. Just before serving, remove bay leaf and add bacon, butter, parsley and paprika. May be kept warm in slow cooker on low. Makes two quarts.

The Southside Virginia Herb Society is a group of local enthusiasts interested in learning and sharing knowledge of gardening, crafting and cooking with herbs.

Members come from Halifax, Mecklenburg, Lunenburg and Charlotte Counties.

For more information contact Kathy at 434-454-4208 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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