The bay leaf: a misunderstood but magical ingredient
Commonly used as a base ingredient in Western cuisine, the bay leaf is one of the most misunderstood ingredients according to Danks Street Depot's Jared Ingersoll.
One fine day I happened to find myself in a little restaurant in Torino, Italy.
I was sharing the table with a couple of other chefs, one of which was a bloke from WA, Vincenzo, who ‘spoke the code’ and ordered for us.
It goes down as one of my favourite, long, lazy, boozy lunches ever, in one of the most unassuming, unpretentious little restaurants I have ever been in.
Thanks to an open style kitchen, the aromas of the next course would waft out and tempt us onto the next dish.
It was all perfect, until the pork.
The wild boar shoulder came out of the oven and instantly the ‘boar taint’ (that rotten, musk-like fume that comes from adolescent male pigs) hit my nose like a hot fist.
It was not good. When I knew the meat was destined for our table, I started to panic and fortified myself with a massive slug of red and ordered another bottle.
But interestingly the chef took a huge fistful of fresh bay leaves, placed it on an oven tray, nestled the shoulder amongst the leaves, covered it with more bay and then put it back into the oven.
The shoulder came to our table; served with something he called Piedmont ratatouille (mainly stewed carrot, onion, zucchini and lots of white pepper) and the boar.
To our surprise, it smelled sweet and amazing. I took a dubious bite. It was the most delicious bay-scented pork I had ever eaten.
The use of fresh bay at the very end of the cooking process had removed that ‘taint’ and replaced it with aromas of lemony-citrusy-fennel-liquorice amazingness.
It was quite a moment for me as a cook to realise this humble ingredient had such potential and such dynamic flavours.
It dawned on me that the possibilities are endless, not only to look at bay in a different light but, to rethink everyday herbs and spices.
It was at this moment I resolved to no longer simply assume the use of an ingredient. Instead I now try to pull it apart, study it and try to uncover those little moments of magic that I never new existed.
So when I start to play with an ingredient I like to go back to the very start. It helps to get a better understanding of unseen potential.
Think about where bay trees originate (The Mediterranean) and then consider their cuisine. Quite often bay is used as the main flavour, yet in most Western kitchens we are taught that it should be used as a base/background flavour.
To grow them, you need good compost and to plant seeds quite shallow and maintain a moderate 21°C. Propagation can take from two weeks to six months.
Get one in your back yard, watch it grow, scratch it, sniff it, bend the branches, feel the leaves and be amazed at the brilliant, almost three-dimensional flavours and aromas the plant will release.
I have found from using, watching and loving bay that the flavour changes with the season. New leaves from a youngish tree that has not had too much water are quite soft and pliable, and have an intensity of flavour and aroma like nothing else.
They are also very easy to wrap around foods, and are really nice when lightly battered in a sweet batter.
After deep-frying, use your teeth to scrape off the batter without eating the leaf. Going into winter the leaves become thicker and have a more robust, yet mellow cinnamon/fennel/anise flavour.
I am head over heels in love with the heady perfume that you can get from fresh bay – it’s very powerful and should be used with reckless abandonment! Put it at the front of the flavour profile of your dish and dare the other ingredients to back it up. Be brave and you will be rewarded.
When using dry bay I find that you can get two very different flavours with two very different techniques.
Infusion is the most commonly practiced, but when making confit or rillettes I find that if you use fresh bay they dry relatively quickly in a dehydrator, then you can grind them into a very fine powder and get a whole different dimension again - still bay, but with depth and attitude.