Summer Fest 2009

Sweet Bay – the 2009 Herb of the Year

Part I By Karen England

“A large bay is almost beyond price.”

-Adelma Grenier Simmons

…from Issue no 50, December 1999 British Archeology

– Christopher Thomas

“Few recent archaeological finds have generated such intense excitement as the Roman sarcophagus discovered in London… The sarcophagus contained a complete lead coffin, in which lay the bones, and some of the belongings, of a wealthy Roman lady who probably died some time in the 4th century…Her head, at the west end of the coffin, was laid on a `pillow’ of bay leaves. Textile found beneath these leaves may have formed a kind of pillowcase…”

Laurus nobilis, commonly known as “Sweet Bay”, “Bay Laurel” or just plain “Bay”, is a perennial herb with both a rich past and a boundless present. Mentioned in scripture, Sweet Bay, is the plant used by the ancient Greeks to crown victors and by the Romans to cushion the dead. Our modern English language is peppered with words and phrases stemming from the plant and its Greek legends; “Baccalaureate”, “resting on your laurels” and more. Not just the ancients’ love Sweet Bay, fast forward to the modern era and Sweet Bay is just as useful and plays a role in modern history. Besides being the 2009 “Herb of the Year”, an honor bestowed by the International Herb Association – it also plays a small role in my own history.

Although I am truly a Pastor’s daughter, I grew up in a nurseryman’s family, working from the tender age of 12 years old for my cousin’s retail garden center located in what is arguably the best location anywhere for horti-business – Encinitas, California, a city that touts itself (or rather, did) as “The Flower Capital of the World” because so many growers, just like my family, settled there. Even though I was around plants constantly growing up, living in a climate that is truly a gardener’s paradise, as a youngster I had no interest in plants and gardening. Yes, I worked in the family nursery business, but it could have been any business for all I cared. It wasn’t until 18 years later when I was married and moved into my first home that I began to develop any interest in the plants I sold all day long. As a new bride I was learning to cook, (gardening was not the only skill I had no interest in growing up!) and, one evening after work, I went to the grocery store on the way home intending to make spaghetti sauce for dinner, when I had a life-changing, herbal epiphany right there in the store. As I began to fill my cart with the ingredients needed to make my mother’s spaghetti sauce, I realized I had just sold the very same items during that day, albeit in plant form – things like basil, bay, oregano, and tomatoes, and for less money than the price of the small spice jars I was about to buy. This was a revelation to me. I had everything available at my work to grow “spaghetti sauce”. At the time, in 1990, a “pony pack” of basil or tomatoes cost 95 cents for 6 little plant starts (Note: very soon afterward the “pony pack” became extinct, due in most part to the high mortality rate of the tiny plants once in the hands of the consumer, and the “pony pack” was replaced by the slightly larger “color pack” which not only sold for more money, $1.95, but contained slightly larger, older plants in the 6 pack and had a much higher consumer survival rate…) Oregano and Bay are normally sold only in individual pots, not “packs”, but a four inch size pot of oregano or a one gallon size pot of bay was then, and they still are, reasonably priced in comparison to grocery store spice jars. That night I put the spices back and made alternate dinner plans that evening’s dinner. The next day I bought and planted my first garden, my first herb garden to boot! And 19 years later I am still benefiting from the lessons I learned from that first garden. Of course, I was fooled, just like other new gardeners everywhere, by the small size of the plants I had bought and I planted them too closely together. Also, even though I had plenty of room in which to plant, most of my available area had plenty of sunshine, I inexplicably planted everything together in partial shade. Even though I did everything wrong, the plants still grew, they just leaned over and out, reaching to the sunshine. And, even though I did everything wrong, they still tasted great. The reward was unbelievable flavor and fragrance and I was hooked. If these herb plants would survive, could survive, in spite of me, not because of me, I wanted to learn more, and learn more I have. In 2006, my 4-year old potted Bay tree, a direct result of that “epiphany garden”, inspired by spaghetti sauce, won the “best in show” trophy at my local flower & garden show. It is the only trophy I have ever won and I treasure it as a monument to how far I have come as a gardener, as a cook and even in some respects as a human. More about “the Herb of the Year for 2009” tomorrow! ‘Til then, here is my recipe invention that I loving call –

“Breakfast of the Year”- Bay Oatmeal

I eat this practically every day! Delicious, good for you & easy…

Serves one – can easily be doubled or tripled to serve more.

1 cup water

½ dried fruit – such as apricots, prunes, craisins, raisins, apples, or a mixture, etc…

1 fresh or dried bay leaf (Laurus nobilis)

Pinch sea salt

½ cup old fashioned rolled oats, preferably organic (This can be made with steel-cut or stone ground oats but keep in mind the cooking time will be much longer.)

1 handful raw almonds, pecans, or a mixture, chopped

1 tablespoon flax seeds, ground in an spice grinder

Pinch freshly grated cinnamon & nutmeg, optional

Honey, optional

Bring the water, fruit, bay & salt to a boil in a small heavy sauce pan and add the oats. Reduce the heat and cook for 10 to 20 minutes (timing depends on desired consistency of your cereal) stirring occasionally. Cover, remove from heat and let stand a few minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Top with nuts, flax seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg & honey & serve.


One Comment

  • Karen

    My niece R., just posted this on facebook…I have such good kids in my family tree…."Yummm… I just made ur bay leaf oatmeal, and I added Peanut Butter!!! So tasty!!! THANKs for the recipie" …Well, my dear girl, you are welcome!

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