The Auspicious Bay Tree
Every garden I've ever loved has had a bay tree growing in it. Mum planted several, Granny too, and we have left them in London, Norfolk and Oxfordshire; I've recently planted one in Stoke on Trent. Until this afternoon I've not stopped before to research this obliging tree with its notable evergreen beauty- handy for decking the halls at Christmas; and it's invaluable leaves which impart fragrant depth to many dishes. Bay is one of my favourite aromatics and I use it often in cookery and almost always have some in a jug in my kitchen. In the photograph here I've used an old coffee jug as the vase.
I knew that a bay tree was where to go to pluck the laurels to weave a victor's wreath- if the need arose- or indeed, one for the front door in Advent, but I had forgotten that that was because in Greek mythology Daphne (an insistent virgin) was turned into a Laurel Tree (called daphne in Greece) rather than succumb to Apollo. We tend to ignore her rather awful fate, though many artists have sought to remind us, in striking imagery, and instead recall Apollo's consolation, which was to weave her leafy hair into victory wreaths. The painting I've shown is by John William Waterhouse.
Until about 8000 BC the Mediterranean basin was covered with forests of laurel, but now there are only remnants of this sylvan landscape, in parts of Syria, Morocco, Spain and Portugal where Laurus Nobilis grows wild. It survives in Britain only if it's planted in a sheltered spot, such as a walled garden. If allowed to, bay trees can grow to heights of 20 or even 30 feet, however they are often tamed into pots, and frequently set each side of a townhouse front door. This use, knowingly or not, recalls the ancient roman regard for laurel trees, which were planted at the gates of Royal palaces for protection from ill chance and specifically lightening strikes.
The Romans adopted and enhanced the Ancient Greek association of laurel wreaths with victory: the device came to stand for courage, strength and wisdom.
Which I will bear in mind; and this backstory enriches the everyday experience of adding bay leaves to flavour many dishes including kedgeree, stews, pasta and even potatoes.
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