The bay tree is native to the eastern Mediterranean, but has long been cultivated in northern Europe and the Americas. It came to symbolize wisdom and glory to the Greeks and Roman, who crowned kings, poets, Olympic champions, and victorious generals with wreaths of its glossy, leathery leaves. Although there are several varieties of bay, only L. nobilis is used in the kitchen.
Bay has a sweet, balsamic aroma with notes of nutmeg and camphor, and a cooling astringency. Fresh leaves are slightly bitter, but the bitterness fades if you keep them for a day or two. Fully dried leaves have a potent flavor and are best when dried only recently.
Fresh leaves can be used from a tree, but are less bitter if kept until wilted. To dry completely, lay leaves flat in a dark, well-aired place and leave until brittle. If stored in an airtight container, dried leaves will keep their aroma and flavor for at least one year.
Bay leaves yield their flavor slowly, so they are useful in stocks, soups, stews, sauces, marinades, and pickles. Bay is always used in a bouguet garni (tied bundle of bay, a few stems of thyme and parsley). It goes well with beans, lentils, and tomatoes, especially to flavor tomato sauce. Two or three bay leaves flavor a dish for four to six people. Remember to remove the leaves before serving.
Bay leaves are good with beef, chicken, fish, lamb, citrus fruits, rice, tomatoes and white beans. They also combine well with allspice, garlic, juniper, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage, savory, and thyme.