Perhaps no greater challenge confronts a chef addressing a skeptical audience than tempting the assembled to venture beyond their comfortable old reliable dishes - the kind they had been spoon-fed by mothers or grandmothers - and boldly delve into the new, the exotic, the untasted. A tomatillo, tomato, and spice salsa instead of the more familiar herb butter on a simple piece of broiled fish appeals to the curious looking for a new dimension to fish; hot red pepper preserves on a soft piece of brie offers a contrast in texture, color, and taste and , for dessert, vanilla ice cream flavored with sweet bay served on a cantaloupe wedge presents a pleasant after dinner change. "Sweet bay?" you cry. Sweet bay begets joy.
Sweet bay refers to the leaves of the Laurus nobilis, an evergreen tree common in the Mediterranean region but will grow much further north and can reach heights of 60 feet. In the United States the Laurus nobilis grows well in areas where the climate does not go below 20 degrees. It belongs to the family that includes cassia, cinnamon, sassafras, and the avocado. Also called Turkish Bay, it is often mistaken for the less desirable domestic bay leaf, Umbellularia californica. These California and Oregon natives are also known as bay laurel, Pacific myrtle, or pepperwood and can be found growing to 40 foot heights along the coastal mountains.
There are differences in the shape, color, and taste of the two species. The shape of the Mediterranean import is more oval compared to the elongated California variety; the color is a deeper green, and the taste milder and sweeter. The import is more expensive but most feel worth the increased price.
The Greeks and Romans crowned their victors in war and sport with sweet bay wreaths. The symbolism survives today in words like baccalaureate and laureate. The leaves also have been said to be used as an antiseptic in boiling water to stave off the scourge of epidemics. Another rumored attribute is as a preventive in keeping insects out of flour, moths out of clothing, and ants from around the drain
Today, their primary use is in cooking. Sweet bay is one of the few herbs that must be added early in the cooking or marinating process because time is required to give up its flavor and permeate the food. Added to cooking water for potatoes, noodles, or spaghetti and to cream or hot milk prior to making a béchamel (white sauce) or ice cream gives what could be an ordinary recipe new direction.
Although in the case of sweet bay, dried is as suitable as fresh, it is uplifting to have a fragrant tree in your kitchen. Bay trees, most often the elongated leaf variety, are available at many herb farms. Though unusually slow growing, they are pretty to look at and can be used for seasoning in an emergency. Turkish sweet bay can be purchased dried by mail from Penzeys Spices (800) 741-7787 (Internet www.penzeys.com). As an added note of interest, the Penzeys catalogue of seasonings is remarkably informative and well worth keeping for reference information.