Notes from Herb Heaven


To honour a soldier, poet or athlete, the Greeks and Romans would fashion a wreath of Laurus nobilis with which to crown their heroes – hence "Poet Laureate". The Sweet Bay is a perennial, evergreen shrub, which grows to a height of 1.5m after five years, and if left in the garden for twenty years it can become a stately 12m tree. More than enough bay leaves to supply an army of chefs!

The bay laurel hails from the Mediterranean and grows in full sun as well as shade. It dislikes frost and high winds and here in Phalaborwa it definitely prefers semi-shade. It grows very well in pots or tubs and can be clipped into a variety of shapes. Although it likes to be watered regularly in summer, the soil must be well drained and a light mulch is needed in hot weather. My bay tree grows happily under my litchi tree outside the kitchen in a terracotta pot. (It is a good idea to spray water on the outsides of terracotta pots to cool them down here in the lowveld.)

Bay is an essential part of bouquet garni which is traditionally parsley, thyme, marjoram and bayleaf. Sometimes a piece of orange rind/zest is added. Imagine this in a chicken casserole! To release the flavour of bayleaf, one must cook it long and slow. Used fresh or dried, it is excellent in soups, casseroles, with roast meats, curries, marinades, almost any vegetable and in stuffings and patés. Bayleaf adds a wonderful flavour to milk puddings and custards and can turn a simple white sauce into a gourmet treat. Always remove leaves before serving.

One bayleaf in a cup of boiling water, strained after 5 minutes, will aid digestion and stimulate the appetite.

Dried leaves in flour, rice and other dried foods will help keep weevils at bay (!)

Boil two cups of fresh leaves in 2L of water, strain and cool slightly and enjoy the revitalising effect in a footbath. Also add the decoction to your bath water.
Propagated from cuttings in late summer, it takes 9 months to root this bay-baby!


Béchamel Sauce

300ml/1½ cups/½ pint milk 
1 bay leaf
1 blade mace (outer covering of nutmeg) 
3 peppercorns
few parsley stalks 
piece of carrot
½ small onion, chopped

Place all ingredients in saucepan, bring slowly to the 
boil, cover and simmer very gently 
for 10 minutes, then strain.

25gm/1 oz/2 Tbs butter 
25gm/1 oz/2 Tbs flour
salt and pepper

Melt butter, add flour and cook gently for 2 minutes.
Remove pan from heat and very gradually beat in 
strained milk. Return pan to heat, bring to the boil, 
stirring all the time until thick.

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