THE MAGIC OF BAY LAUREL: : : POT POURRI by SANTA MARIA NOVELLA (1828) + BAY RUM by GEO F. TRUMPER (1888)

 

 

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I have been cooking a lot with laurel bay leaf these past few weeks. Our own plant has been struggling, but there is a big tree on the street that I pinch branches off at night. Although the fresh leaves are said to be too pungent and bitter, I don’t find that to be the case; the leaves are small, and beautifully fragrant, and I like to use them either dried or straight from the source. I like them in profusion: sometimes up to, or more than ten leaves (or even more: I adore this taste). You end up picking them out of my stews and sauces at the end of the meal – I am finding that a garlic/ fresh rosemary-from-the-front garden ground down / salt / sugar olive oil base with all the right tomatoes – fresh, and in purees, and then bay leaves added (I also love paprika – I made a very heartwarming Hungarian goulash type thing the other night which we gulped down greedily like children in Hansel and Gretel)  – creates an almost savoury perfumed deliciousness that I can’t quite imagine achieving with other herbs  – I personally can’t stand too much basil / tarragon / marjoram / fennel / parsley / oregano for example. Laurel leaves are more complicated in their aromatic makeup, with hints of thyme, and sage  – hence their use in the classic bouquet garni  –  but there is something sweetly floral about them – a hint of almond blossom, something almost liquorous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Italy, there is in fact a popular digestivo made solely from laurel leaves macerated in alcohol – liquore di alloro-  a Northern Italian equivalent of the French Chartreuse,  which by law can only be made by the monks who originally perfected the recipe of 130 different botanicals used in secret to create the legendary medicinal curative of 53% proof. I have tried Chartreuse before, and don’t dislike it (like absinthe, it feels almost otherworldly drinking it – you shudder like Toulouse Lautrec), and don’t dislike bitters generally  – D, conversely, grimacing, cannot touch them with a barge pole – but I derive a strange satisfaction from that convulsive sense of them doing something beneficial to my innards – treating poison with poison.  Alloro, though. Just bay laurel leaves. I almost feel like trying to concoct some at home. You never know how long you might have to stay inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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To avoid the dreaded ‘bay confusion’, it should be noted for the sticklers here that Bay laurel (laurus nobilis) is of course a completely different species of herb to the ‘bay leaf’ used in Jamaican Bay Rum preparations (pimenta racemes); the latter is warmer and much spicier – and similar in odour and flavour to allspice and pimiento berries. I love both bays, though bay rum aftershaves in the manner of Old Spice and the majority of gentleman’s haberdashery bay concentrations are a tad too ‘grey gabardine Carey Grant leering hunkpapa’ for me personally. D will sometimes wear Czech & Speake’s saucy Cuba which has a strong bay rum note ; Aramis’ womanizing Havana has a hard, spiky bay rum at its angularly exiled heart, but anything too bayrummy always feels to me a bit too bitter-breathed, shaving-creamed manly for me to take too much of in one go. Olympic Orchids’ extraordinarily potent Bay Rum is oppressive. I feel almost harassed by such smells. Close, but no cigar. Still, pimiento, like clove, is a wonderful winter spice, and most bay rum aftershave preparations contain both of these fiery stud-like nails, alongside herbs and woods, and also flowers to create their arousing, yet almost sedative effect.

 

 

 

 

 

Geo F Trumper’s very singular take on bay rum

 

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is almost scandalously simple  ( there are scores of angry men online lamenting its lack of a true bay rum feel), but this precisely is why I sometimes wear my bottle: it is just cloves, cloves, and cloves, with an aftertaste of bay leaf-  quite similar to Caron Poivre , but without that glorious carnation’s black, inchoate heart. Still, I like it, sometimes, even if just for a brief blast of spicy eugenol on a cold, rainy morning when, shivering,  I can’t for the life of me think of anything else to put on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Santa Maria Novella’s justifiably famed ‘Pot Pourri’ is sold both as a macerated preparation of flowers and spices in decorative lidded glass or porcelain bowls, to subtly/powerfully fragrance the home, as well as an eau de toilette (which is very popular in Japan among those in the fashionable know). Deep, rosed, almost sour and ineffably pungent, this is the scent that assails you from every angle when you enter the glorious apothecary in Florence, a recipe that has been continued in the same manner for centuries. Pot Pourri contains large quantities of bay laurel (see the picture at the top), which is probably the most prominent note in this elegant and mysterious blend of treated essences along with resinous cloves, vinegared flowers and herbs such as thyme, lavender and carnations over peru balsam and patchouli; it is a smell that once experienced, never leaves your smell brain (thank you so much, Georgia, for bringing me my first ever encounter with this potion all those years ago in Japan; for me, this is inextricably also the smell of our old house in Kamakura ); immediately recognisable  – in fact, those that remember my prevaricating, a few years ago, over whether to buy an extortionately priced vintage bottle of Coty Chypre, will probably remember the antique shop in Shinjuku that still has that bottle ( I was there just a couple of weeks ago or more, though time has started to lose its graspability a little at the moment, as you know); locked inside a wooden cabinet with a dusting, glassed window;  the same price; now less affordable than ever……….when I went in to check, the entire space full of British artefacts; mirrors; vases, lampshades; chandeliers was scented with the carefully placed ceramic dish plied with some Santa Maria Novella,  creating a very pleasing, quiet and refined moment. For those who enjoy the yearning dark stars of chypre such as Clinique Aromatics and the like, the aqua di colonia of this curious perfume by Santa Maria Novella is most definitely worth seeking out. It is unique.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It is quite interesting that I have been so drawn to bay laurel recently. Looking into its aromatherapeutic benefits today,  I find that it is good for the heart, arthritis, the digestion;  is anti-influenza/ colds, and was often used in fighting off the plague. I have obviously come to it instinctively. In large doses, I found out this morning that like nutmeg – which I have also been using huge quantities of, intuitively –  it can almost be a narcotic (hence my swooning, perhaps, over my own laurel-stuffed chilli chicken and roasted turnips that we had for dinner last night) – burned into the air at the rituals of the Delphic Oracles as an offering to the gods. Laurel is warming to the soul – a sanctuary   – literally in the case of Daphne, the daughter of the river god Peneus and the nymphs Creusa in Thessaly, a ‘proud huntress’ who yearned only to be free and live in the forest, unattached, but was chased and hounded by the God Apollo until, in a moment of desperation as they reached the river bank, she was transformed – to the god’s astonished eyes    —-  into a living laurel tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Edith Hamilton’s ‘Mythology’ (1942) , we are told that Daphne is relentless in her desire to be undomesticated, left alone  (“Daphne was another of those independent, love-and-marriage-hating young huntresses who are met with so often in the mythological stories”): and there is indeed something very beautiful, if tragic, in the idea of this fierce spirit being liberated into the leaves I have been consuming these last few weeks without even being conscious of these old and ancient tales (I had obviously been ‘resting on my laurels’  somewhat in the Classics department , a term I had never really understood before, but which now of course I see is a a reference to those conceited champions and emperors who wreathe themselves in laurel leaves, but then become complacent and indolent, feasting on their former glories). With this aromatic, delicious tree,  I love the link to D’s Greek Cypriot roots  – his mother is also Daphne ; the power of the demi-goddess; the symbolic extrication, and refuge into nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“But Daphne flew on, even more frightened than before. If Apollo was indeed following her, the case was hopeless, but she was determined to struggle to the very end. It had all but come; she felt his breath upon her neck, but there in front of her the trees opened and she saw her father’s river. She screamed to him : “Help me! Father, please help me!” At the words, a dragging numbness came upon her, her feet seemed rooted in the earth she had been so swiftly speeding over. Bark was enclosing her; leaves were sprouting forth. She had been changed into a tree :  a laurel.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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25 Comments

Filed under BAY LEAF, Herbal, Spice

25 responses to “THE MAGIC OF BAY LAUREL: : : POT POURRI by SANTA MARIA NOVELLA (1828) + BAY RUM by GEO F. TRUMPER (1888)

  1. A lovely and informative piece thank you for sharing. Delphic oracle…the high priestess would be burning Bay Laurel to get the smoke to communicate with the Gods? Perhaps the scent open up her mind for a clear vision…all very interesting. The scent to me gives courage…feels victory…thank you for sharing again! Have a great weekend and stay safe.

    • You too. I am glad you enjoyed this (have we met before?) as I also felt quite serene writing it. I agree – bay laurel leaves definitely have a feeling of courage and great optimism to them. Very open and warm hearted. Dry and spicy and benevolent. I am glad that the pursued huntress – being hounded by the horny and predatory Greek god, got to be a laurel tree, and not a pine, for example (I find the smell of pine trees strangely depressing).

    • PS. I kind of feel like trying to burn some bay laurel dried leaves to see what they smell like.

      I might do it after dinner tonight in the kitchen sink.

  2. Georgia Kossifou

    Loved seeing my name☺️..

    • I can see you walking through the door when you came to Japan that time (how many years ago is it now?) and you gave me the SMN. It is an incredible place, that apothecary. Next time I want to take tea in that jar filled tea room. Have you ever ?

  3. bibimaizoon

    Ooo, love bay leaves!
    No pot of chicken soup would be complete without one.
    I have a bottle of Blackberry & Bay by Jo Malone London that reminds me of my native northern California. Both blackberries and California bay laurels (Umbellularia californica) grow wild there. In India & Nepal the leaves of Cassia trees are called ‘tej patta’ or bay leaves – totally different cinnamon-y flavor than the Greek laurel or California bay though. I have to check out Santa Maria Novella- their scents sound like something I would like.

    • Oh yes you must – old and odd and authentic.

      ‘Complete without ‘one” though –

    • I was wondering about the bay in the Jo
      Malone actually. Is it actually detectable? If so I might have to go and check it out. I love L’Artisan’s Mure et Musc

      • bibimaizoon

        The bay is pronounced in Jo Malone’s B&B. The blackberry is not. I wish the scent had more of the musky sweetness of blackberry but I get more grapefruit & vetiver. Still, it is a very unique and herbal “freshie,” quite realistic & natural. Always makes me reminiscent of the northern California coast.
        I bought a huge bottle of Attack laundry detergent, I had a choice of Fresh or Fruity scents. Both remind me of weaker versions of the bombastic & ridiculously long lasting Latino Fabuloso cleaning products.

      • That’s the problem: I have become too attuned to fabric conditioners now. They drive me crazy after a while if they aren’t right.

  4. I enjoy digestives quite a lot. I prefer bitter to sweet with regard to drinks. I especially like Amaro.

    • What is that again? I recently found that although I didn’t use to drink it, Campari Orange/ Campari Grapefruit (who knew) can be absolutely divine in the right moment.

      Some of these liqueurs do taste like medicine, though – no?

  5. One of my favourites too – we are lucky enough to have 2 bay trees so I dry lots every year when we trim them..
    Have you tried it in rice? we put about 4-5 leaves in with our basmati when cooking – it complements the flavour beautifully.

  6. Robin

    Loved this post. I think they’re more important than ever right now. We need your writing, your photos, your perspective. xoxo

    • Thanks. This morning I have woken up in blisteringly clearheaded rational mode rather than dreamily poetic but I am restraining myself as fury, even when entertaining for others, can make me overheat too much. I enjoyed this one yesterday because I woke up feeling really delighted to be ‘free’ after the stress of the week and having to plan and make online lessons (which is quite draining, actually, even if I know I am lucky to even have paid work right now).

      And I really do love the connection between D’s mother and the legend and the leaves – there is something quite dream-like and ‘beyond’ about it all that feeds my imagination, as well as my (ever expanding – I am eating too much stuck in side) stomach.

  7. A fantastic piece of writing!

  8. Laurie

    Thanks as ever for writing. And for this writing. And for considering a connection between the potency of the tree and the complexity of Daphne’s story: hunter then hunted, running free and then fixed, rescued and then used anyway, appropriated… It’s one I’ve spent a lot of time with over the years. And, sure, an early entry in the list of my parents’ wrong turns on the path toward the daughter they looked for. (What IS it about lesbians and Greek mythology…) Also very glad to hear you’re both eating well. Liquore di alloro– please let’s. You know, after. x

    • We must. It looks so thrillingly green and dusty alchemical, doesn’t it? And you KNOW that D will be able to find a similar-looking decanter somewhere for us to store it in. ‘Alloro’. Such a beautiful word. Are there any laurel trees near where you are right now? We should start collecting and macerating and then have a Laurel Party. xxx

      As for the Daphne hunter/hunted thing, I didn’t really think about it at all before writing it – as I am sure you gathered – it kind of occurred to me while writing it. ‘Used anyway, appropriated’ – yes. I felt that too. Would you rather she had been turned into a poisonous tree that no one could touch? That could also work. But then she would just be trapped inside: toxic as Britney Spears. Fuming in gnarled solitary confinement. Are the bay leaves, then, now I have realized this, in some way like the Eucharist wafers in Catholic services? In the same way that myrrh tears exude from the bark when deliberately injured and then we burn them as incense or wear them as perfumes? (I can’t remember the precise details of Myrrh, but I know that Ted Hughes’ poem based on the Ovid was utterly perfect, and if I remember, quite similar in theme to Daphne. Harassed women transforming into plantly exudates.) I feel that Daphne is alive inside the tree, happier to at least be alone forever and do her tree thing. Of course, she would rather be running wild and free, but you can’t have everything. And at least we can enjoy her warming odor of sanctity. You, as Laurie – I realised this also when writing – must have a special connection to this story and plant. I had never really thought about any of it before. Are we also eating Duncan’s mother each time we put some leaves into a stew? What do you say, Daphne?

      Obviously, also in talking about bitter breathed Cary Grants etc and their spiced ‘aftershaves’ couched in aggression I am, I suppose, making a link to Daphne the huntress and to myself as well (need she necessarily be female? Narcissus was unwillingly obsessed over by a silent female stalker who then attacked him at the water). . I am literally ‘triggered’ – and I don’t usually use that word, which has become problematic – by the smell of really violently ‘masculine’ fragrances : so I was also talking about my own revulsion of the predatory, presumptuous male; not that I have been abused or ever treated badly on a sexual level, but I think on ALL levels (like the male ‘leaders’ of the world who are happy to sacrifice us for the ‘economy’ etc right now), I can relate to Daphne just saying FUCK THIS and continue running through the fresh lung searing forest in pursuit of her liberty and then finding solace in greenness and chlorophyll .

  9. Ann

    Haven’t smelled bay leaf in perfume but we have a tree and use the leaves in cooking. How is life in lock down for you? We have been in “social isolation” for over 4 weeks now here in Sydney and only go out briefly for shopping and walking the dog. It’s exhausting and I had a huge melt down yesterday. Thanks for your posts …that last drawing reminds me of Timothee Chalamet for some reason..

  10. OnWingsofSaffron

    I’ll refrain from all facetious, gratuitous or queeny comments on what it would feel like being desired by Apollo who, after all, was considered to be the most beautiful God way up there on Mount Olympus! (Apropos, there is another human-to-tree transformation myth, this time concerning a young man called Kyparissos was becomes a cypress tree; and in some versions it seems that Apollo once again played a questionable role in this sorry story.)

    So onto more mundane questions: What is your verdict of Dior’s Spice Blend which is supposedly inspired by the scent of Bay Rum? Dior seems to be churning out one perfume after another: now there is an Oud Rosewood.

    • You know, I am behind the times. I have not been able to get up to Tokyo to try the Spice Blend yet (have you? What is it like? If it has bay leaf in it I can imagine it being quite old fashioned…..) Oud Rosewood…….? somehow I like the sound of that. I really love the smell of rose wood when it is done well.

      Re: perfumes I think I am just too freaked out by everything, have no access either, and am thus writing caprices about cooking and Grecian transformations – I had never heard the Kyparissos story, by the way, and will have to read about it in more detail.

      And yes: being pursued by an astonishingly beautiful beautiful god could be quite amazing. I just think that Laurel, and probably Cypress too, only wanted to be left alone. I understand that instinct more deeply in myself than the strongest sexual urge.

    • Just reading about dear Kyparissos. The grief over killing, by accident, a ‘tamed stag’ and then turning into a cypress through mourning. It’s interesting because as I commented earlier, I don’t like the smell of pine or any coniferous trees especially – I find the appearance of them and the essential oil quite dark and depressing (even if cypress trees in the Greek, Tuscan and Umbrian countryside are, obviously, very beautiful). That the legend of the tree stems from dark emotions makes sense to me: Apollo certainly got around….! Hyacinth at least was just an accidental killing; his beauty transformed without any surrounding negative emotion, and hence the divine ecstasy of the smell of the flowers in spring.

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