Friday, 27 August 2010

Baywatch

Bay or Bay Laurel, (Lauris Nobilis - Noble Bay) is a plant traditionally associated with success and achievement. The term "winning some laurels", meaning being successful, derives from the practice used in the ancient Olympic Games, whereby the winners were crowned with laurel wreaths. This tradition was recently revived for the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004.  "Laurel" is also the origin of the word "Laureate" as in "Poet Laureate".

From a culinary perspective, Bay is used as a herb, mainly for flavouring casseroles, marinades and stock and it's especially good with game. It is closely associated with Greek / Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, presumably because this is where the plant originated. It can also be used in desserts, such as egg custards, but I don't think this is very common these days. The flavour of fresh Bay leaves is quite pungent, so you will probably only need one, or perhaps two, in a dish serving two people. You can buy dried Bay leaves in shops, but they are (in my opinion) not much good -- they are usually lacking in flavour and aroma, probably because they are already stale when you buy them. The leaves, fresh or dried,  are quite tough, so once they have given up their flavour, you will probably want to fish them out and discard them. When I use the fresh leaves in a dish I normally tear them in a couple of places to make it easier for the flavour to come out.

If you let it, the Bay will grow into a very big shrub. I have one at the bottom of my garden that is currently about eight feet tall, and about as wide, and this is only that "small" because I prune it ruthlessly every year. This is where we get Bay leaves for culinary use, because I am not worried about making the tree look nice!


The big (and not very picturesque) Bay tree

More normally, the Bay is kept in check and pruned into better-looking shapes, such as the pyramid, or the "lollipop"-shaped standard. I have two standard Bays growing in terracotta pots on my patio, contributing to the "Continenal Courtyard" effect I have tried to achieve. These trees are sons of the big straggly bush, taken as cuttings about 15 years ago. (Bay is very slow-growing and these cuttings were taken so long ago that I can't remember exactly when it was!). These trees are for ornamental purposes only, and we don't pick leaves from them for culinary use.


Standard Bay tree

The other Standard Bay
After a few years of growing in the confined space of the terracotta pots, my Bays began to look a bit sickly, so these days during the Summer I generally dose them up every few weeks with liquid fertiliser, which seems to keep them in good form. You can tell when they are healthy, because the leaves will be dark green and glossy. Pale coloured leaves with a matt finish are a bad sign. Here's a picture of some healthy leaves.

Healthy Bay leaves

Bay trees are also allegedly prone to wind damage in cold Winters, and will be grateful for a bit of shelter. The year before last I covered mine in fleece "plant-cosies" to protect them. This turned out to be a very bad move, because they didn't like the humid conditions that these things seem to produce, and the trees developed some sort of fungal disease and eventually lost most of their leaves. Fortunately they have recovered now, but I won't be repeating that experiment.

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