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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”