Updated: Dec 15, 2018
The bay leaf that we know and use in our kitchen is a descendant of the enormous laurel forests that covered most of the Mediterranean landscape long ago, at a time when the climate was more lush and humid. Though some of these trees still exist in Turkey, Spain, and Portugal, most ancient laurel forests disappeared around ten thousand years ago.
Laurus nobilis is known by many names – bay, laurel, sweet bay, true laurel, laurel tree, and Grecian laurel. Its fragrant leaves are pointed, oval, and shiny, with a hint of gold. In the wild, the bay can grow as tall as ten meters, but typically they reach between one and three meters when cultivated. If in doubt, make sure to check the Latin name, because there are many different kinds of bay plants and not all of them are as pleasant and useful to us as the true laurus nobilis. Some are even poisonous.
The Rich History of Laurel Laurel has a long and storied history. The Greek word for laurel is dhafni or “Daphne.” It is named for Daphne, the mountain nymph who escaped the god Apollo’s unwanted amorous pursuit by turning into a laurel tree. Though not exactly a happy ending for Daphne, the moment when she is transformed into a verdant laurel has been immortalized in many works of art, perhaps the most famous of which is a marvelous life-sized marble sculpture by the Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Apparently, Apollo never really accepted “no” as an answer, and took to wearing a laurel wreath around his head from then on. The priestess of Apollo, the Pythia, was known to chew leaves from a laurel tree growing inside her temple to bring on a trance. In this altered state, she uttered prophecies while shaking a laurel branch. It is said that the oracles of Delphi chewed its leaves and inhaled its smoke to induce visions as well.
A laurel wreath was given as the prize at the Pythian Games, dedicated to Apollo, and later at the Olympics. It became associated with high status and triumph among kings, athletes, poets, and scholars.
This symbolic meaning continued in ancient Rome, where the plant was prized by the ruling class. Its Latin name, laurus nobilis, means “noble praise.” As with the Greeks, the laurel came to symbolize wisdom and glory for the Romans, who crowned scholars, athletes and other heros with laurel wreaths, a practice that persists to the present day. Napoleon crowned himself Emperor using a “laurel wreath” fashioned of solid gold. For many years, a laurel wreath was awarded to the winner of the Grand Prix, although this tradition fell away in the 1980s in deference to ad sponsors who objected to their logos being obscured by laurel’s glossy leaves! Today, laurel wreaths are still worn by graduating students in Italy. The terms “laureate” (“Nobel Laureate,” “Poet Laureate,” “Composer Laureate,” and so on) and “baccalaureate” (literally, “laurel berries”) hearken to these traditions.
It is believed that Rome’s first empress Livia planted a sprig of laurel that grew to become a tree, and then spread into a grove. All subsequent Roman emperors wore laurel wreaths descended from Livia’s original planting. When the entire royal grove suddenly died off shortly before Nero’s assassination, it was seen as an omen presaging the end of the Roman Empire.
In ancient Rome, laurel wreaths were also worn for protection. They were thought to ward the wearer against the anger of the gods, and the Emperor Tiberius always wore laurel during thunderstorms to prevent being struck by lightening. Doctors wore laurel as well, since it was considered helpful in curing most anything.
It’s no wonder that we still associate laurel with victory, success, and prosperity. To this day, people carry laurel to protect against misfortune and to bring luck in athletic competitions.
Laurel’s Medicinal Uses
Throughout ancient and into modern times, laurel has been considered a kind of cure-all, much prized among medicinal herbs:
Its extract has been used as an astringent, as a salve for wounds, and as a remedy for allergic reactions to poison ivy, poison oak, and stinging nettle.
Essential oil of laurel is added to massage oil to treat arthritis and muscle aches.
When rubbed into the temples, a few drops of bay oil can also help ease the pain of headaches and migraines.
It can be used as a salve for bruising and other mild skin irritations
Applying a poultice of bay leaves and berries on ones chest can relieve head and chest colds
Making a tea from leaves and berries aids in digestion and in calming one’s nerves
Recent studies support these traditional natural remedies, as laurel has been proven to possess bacterial- and fungal-fighting properties, as well as high levels of vitamins A, B-6, C, and calcium, iron, and magnesium. Some studies show that it also reduces blood glucose levels, cholesterol, and triglycerides. It is now recommended by doctors for promoting the healing of wounds, managing diabetes, supporting heart health, and reducing inflammation.
And as if all that isn’t enough, laurel is high in lauric acid, which helps to keep insects away, so it’s great to use as a natural bug repellent!
Natural Personal Care with Laurel
Along with its medicinal applications, bay leaf infusions are used in skin- and hair-care products, and to make perfumes and colognes.
Herbaria , a US soap maker, has created a Provencal-inspired soap infused with laurel. It’s based on the famed Savon d’Alep, a soap from an ancient Syrian recipe that uses laurel for its unmistakable scent and pale green color. You can find many other versions of the Savon d’Alep at the open air markets of Provence.
Carrière Frères , a French company that began as an innovative candle-maker in 1884, continues to craft beautiful clean-burning candles in Normandy, and the Bay Laurel is one of their most beloved scents.
L:A BRUKET , a spa-inspired line of natural personal care products from Sweden, offers hand and body washes featuring essential oil from the laurel leaf. They also sell a laurel-based “stimulating body lotion” which they promise will strengthen your concentration, creativity, and calm. Not to mention laurel-infused shave cream, after-shave balm, beard oil, and beard wax that “soften the hair, making it easier to cut,” “reduce friction and irritation,” while nourishing and protecting your hair and skin.
Laurel is indeed a prized ingredient in hair care and is often added to shampoos and conditioners to treat hair loss, dandruff and greasy hair. It helps to moisturize the scalp and acts as an astringent, tightening hair follicles and encouraging healthy growth.
Sweet bay is valued by natural healers as well. The leaves are said to enhance psychic abilities, so are often added to dream pillows. They are also worn during healing ceremonies to increase positive energy in a space. And bay leaf is burned once an illness has passed, to clear the room of any ill effects. The same goes with unwanted visitors – once they’ve left, try burning some laurel and sweeping it out the door to keep them away for good!
Cooking with Laurel
Bay leaf is a very common ingredient in many countries’ cuisines, especially those of the Mediterrannean. Lengthy cooking brings out the full flavor and fragrance of the laurel. Usually the whole leaf is added to sauces and stews, and removed before serving, since it can be tough and difficult to digest.
However, ground bay leaves can be eaten safely, so the crushed leaves are often added to soups, marinades, roasted meats, vegetables, and bean dishes. It’s often used to enhance the flavor of a Bloody Mary. The wood of the laurel can be burned to create a strong smoke flavor, typically added to a grill to impart its unique taste to roasted meats and vegetables.
In France, the laurel is a required component of the famous bouquet garni, which at a minimum is composed of parsley, thyme, and laurel, and then used to flavor all manner of classic dishes, especially stocks, stews, braises and soups. The herbs are tied up in a bundle with string, wrapped in cheesecloth or even the tough outer leaves of a leek.
Besides the bouquet garni, in French cooking, the laurel leaf itself is one of the most frequently used herbs. Essential in all manner of pâtés and in nearly all pickling marinades, French chefs will add a bay leaf or two to poached and stewed dishes, as well as soups, stocks, and risottos. You’ll find it in French recipes for red or pickled cabbage, roasts, infused vinegars, and even to infuse the milk for a sweet custard or pudding.
Some typical French dishes featuring laurel include:
Beef Bourguignon beef slowly simmered in red wine with onions
Coq au Vin chicken in wine, with regional varieties throughout France
French Onion Soup caramelized onion soup served gratinéed with croutons and cheese
Potato Dauphinoise baked casserole of potatoes with cream and garlic
For more ideas on Provencal cuisine and recipes, view our full article on the iconic foods of southern France CLICK HERE .
Laurel in Provence
Look for fresh laurel, laurel wreaths, laurel soaps and other artisan products featuring laurel at the many open-air markets of Provence. You can often find naturally distilled essential oil of laurel at these markets as well. And you won’t have to look far to taste it in the cuisine of Provence!
As in the rest of France, Provençal cooking makes liberal use of the fragrant laurel. Here are some of the more famous Provençal dishes featuring laurel, but the list is really endless:
Béchamel a white “mother sauce” often made in Provence with olive oil, garlic, and infused with bay
Bouillabaisse traditional fish soup originating in Marseille
Camargue-style Brandade salt cod and olive oil whipped spread
Crème Brûlée some Provencale chefs infuse bay leaves in cream to make this lovely dessert
Filet d’Alose Désarête et Grille à la Feuille de Laurier a deboned freshwater fish grilled over bay leaves
Lentils Provençal Le Puy lentils simmered with aromatics
Gardiane de Taureau oxtail stew in the style of the Camargue
Gigot de Mer à la Provençale roasted monkfish with garlic and herbs
Soupe au Pistou bright vegetable and bean soup with garlic-basil paste
Provençal Beef Daube braised beef, red wine, and vegetables
Provençal Garlic Soup deceptively simple garlic, olive oil, egg yolk and herb soup
Provençal Potato Gratin vegetable- and herb-forward potato casserole
Provençal Rack of Lamb with Ratatouille herb-crusted grilled lamb served with an iconic sauté of the region’s vegetables, garlic, and herbs
For more ideas on Provencale cuisines and recipes, view our full article on the staple foods of Southern France HERE .
Laurel at Provence Paradise You can conveniently explore the local sights, and enjoy Provencale culinary specialties, when you stay at Provence Paradise in St. Remy de Provence. For travel ideas, or for booking your own vacation rental in Provence, Click Here to find out more.
When you stay at a townhouse at Provence Paradise, you’ll be able to get to know laurel up close and personal. It’s one of our favorite plants, and it thrives in the personal kitchen gardens we’ve planted for each of our homes. If you haven’t used fresh bay leaves before, we bet you’ll be delighted with the bright, heady flavor and aroma of the just-picked leaves.
There are truly endless ways to use fresh laurel in your cooking. Make your own bouquet garni and pickling brines, add a few leaves to terrines, marinades, and stews, steep leaves in milk for béchamels and puddings, add them to boiling water for potatoes or rice, try adding them to meat or vegetable skewers over the grill, the list goes on and on.