Ivy and Laurel Borders
The noble laurel leaf, more commonly known as the bay leaf, has a history like no other herb. Legend and myth surrounded it even before the champions of the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. were crowned with garlands of the glossy, green leaf.
In Greek mythology, Daphne was the young, beautiful daughter of a river god. She was pursued by many admirers but she rejected every lover, including the powerful son of Zeus, Apollo (god of prophecy, of musical and artistic inspiration, of archers and of healing). When Apollo persisted in his quest for her love, Daphne became frightened and prayed to the gods for mercy, whereupon she was transformed into a laurel tree. Apollo then took from her branches and made a wreath as a memory of her beauty and his love for her. He appropriated the laurel wreath, since called "daphne" in Greek, for champions and those who strived for excellence in their chosen fields, i.e. in the ancient Olympics games, the champions were crowned with a "daphne".
Romans considered the bay tree a symbol of glory as well as protection from thunderstorms. Nero believed bay trees purified the air and Roman victors would wipe the blood from their swords with the leaves. In Shakespeare's time, superstition held that when bay trees died, disaster was sure to follow.
Today the bay leaf is used around the world for culinary purposes. It is picked by hand from the evergreen Laurus nobilis or bay tree native to the Mediterranean. The trees will grow to heights of 60 feet with thick, shiny leaves. Thin layers of leaves are weighted down, to prevent curling, and dried in the shade. Drying in the sun causes them to turn brown and lose much of their essential oil.
The most common form of bay leaf as an herb is the dried whole leaf. It may be crumbled into recipes or added whole. Should you find fresh leaves, remember that they will be slightly more bitter than the dried version. Although rather difficult to find, ground bay leaves are convenient to use and excellent for creating your own spice blends.
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