What about the bay leaf?

I’ve been thinking about bay leaves – boring, I know. Please don’t stop reading, this is going somewhere.

In Jennifer Reese’s awesome Make The Bread, Buy The Butter (one of my favourite books of 2011) she has this to say about bay leaves, “If bay leaf didn’t exist, would anyone miss it? I’ve never tasted something and thought, This stew is just crying out for bay leaf. But I keep buying and using it nonetheless.” She’s right, of course. But I wanted her to be wrong. I love bay leaves. And bay trees.

I started searching online, it’s where all searches begin, really, and I found a lot of very dull “add to soup” type of advice. I also found the equally dull “they’re good if you add them to potatoes/chicken/ bouquet garni/ court-bouillon”, I even found “weave them into a wreath” (really, a wreath!) and my best “make potpourri” – do people really do that? Am I missing out here?

I turned to books and found that Larousse calls them “indispensable” but doesn’t say why and the brilliant Simon Hopkinson “thanks The Lord” for them. Every chef, it seems, loves a bay leaf.

After much fruitless Googling and page turning I remembered my Momofuku obsession of ’09 – the obsession actually started way before then but the fires of the obsession were stoked when David Chang committed some of his recipes to paper. Anyway, I remembered seeing a small, bay-focused recipe in those pages.

It’s so simple, pork fat infused with fresh bay then whipped into butter (with the help of some added melted butter) set in the fridge and then and served with homemade muffins. Sounds awesome, no?

So I tried it. Easy enough to do. I used the rendered fat from very smokey bacon, unsalted butter and about 10 bay leaves and was left with a little over a cup of beautiful, silky, bay leaf butter. But what next? There are only so many muffins a girl can eat… and I didn’t actually have any muffins and I was not about to make muffins.

I brushed it onto thick slices of ciabatta and toasted them on the bbq. Quite nice but was the ciabatta better for it? Not sure. Would I have missed the bay if I’d slathered the ciabatta in plain bacon butter and grilled it? Not sure about that either. (Also, toasted bacon butter bread! Now that might be something I could get onboard with – bit of a Paula Deen moment).

I gently seared scallops in it. Nice enough but not life changing. The delicate sweetness of the scallops actually benefitted more from the smokey bacon flavours than from the bay leaf.

I tried a bit of a wintery risotto with it. Again, nice enough but a bit ho hum.

I had a rack of pork from which my butcher had inexplicably removed the fat – seriously, who does that? Knowing it was not going to have the benefit of being cooked under a layer of gently melting pig fat I smothered it in a mixture of bay leaf butter and dijon mustard before roasting. It was okay. I noticed the bay leaf because I was looking for it but would I have missed it if it wasn’t there? I doubt it.

The result of the bay leaf experiment: awesome? No.

If you happen to have a glut of bay leaves hanging around the best I can suggest is … add them to potatoes/chicken/ bouquet garni/ court-bouillon or maybe weave them into a wreath or make some potpourri.

A London restaurant I worked at adorned its front entrance with gorgeous, eucalyptusy bay trees – the soft scent is so evocative to me that when I pass fresh bay trees in a nursery (or wherever) I instinctively check my pockets for pens and wine openers and square my shoulders for service. Maybe one never outgrows stuff like that? And maybe that’s the point of the bay.


9 thoughts on “What about the bay leaf?

  1. I just feel so good after reading your stuff – it’s like a good cappuccino – no lectures, no pressure, you’re just glad you did it!

  2. Shell Bell, how on earth did you manage to turn a Bay Leaf into this !!! Everyone needs a Bay Tree, even if you don’t use the leaves often enough, but after reading your Blog, I am going to TRY to find something exciting to do with the leaves. If you are as lucky as me, and have a nice big tree, then you can make kebabs with a branch, thread your goodies on the stripped branch and put it onto the braai (bbq) smother meat in your delicious Bay Butter …. yum !

  3. Can’t believe you have the patience to research the lowly bay leaf….and make the butter… the rest of us just go and buy it… however I am not too sure if the bay leaf was worth all this effort -but the story was. well done on a great read.

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