The bay tree is a species of laurel sometimes called sweet bay or bay laurel to distinguish it from other laurels, such as the cherry laurel, whose leaves contain the poison prussic acid. Although indigenous to Asia it grows, and is widely used, throughout the Mediterranean. Its history dates back to the legends of ancient Greece when it is said the god Apollo was in love with a nymph named Daphne who hid herself from him in a bay tree. On finding her there he declared the tree sacred and wore a wreath of its leaves around his head. This gave rise to the tradition of crowning victors in battle and sporting events with a wreath of laurel leaves. The word laureate means “crowned with laurels” hence Poet Laureate for poets and Baccalaureate for students.
Bay is one of the most frequently used herbs worldwide and is an essential element, along with parsley and thyme, of the classic herb combination known as Bouquet Garni. Its main role is bringing together other flavours, giving them depth and adding richness. The leaves are however very potent and should be used sparingly, especially when fresh. Once dried the flavour mellows somewhat, but otherwise is perfectly acceptable. This is one of the few herbs that I do bother to dry to save me a trip outside if it is raining!
Owing to its frequent use in combination with other herbs and flavourings the characteristics of Bay are not always clearly apparent. Its aroma is quite pungent and slightly bitter although not unpleasantly so, with a hint of menthol. The flavour is spicy and woody with a slightly astringent taste that leads to comparisons with tea.
Although predominantly used in savoury dishes it can also be used in sweet especially milk based dishes, for example to flavour a custard or rice pudding. Examples of savoury dishes that use Bay in isolation are barbequed eel, in which chunks of eel are threaded onto a skewer alternated with bay leaves, or potatoes, which sometimes have bay leaves added to the boiling water or, once par boiled, inserted into a cut in the potato before roasting.
Bay leaves stored in flour are said to deter weevils, although presumably every dish in which the flour is used then tastes of Bay. Added to bath water, an infusion is said to be good for aching limbs.