Sacred to Zeus in ancient Greek mythology, the laurel tree (also known as the bay laurel or the bay tree) is omnipresent in the Mediterranean region.
Long before biblical times, and across different civilizations, the leaves of the laurel tree have been imbued with symbolic meaning – perhaps most familiar to us as a symbol of glory and achievement. To this day, students in Bologna and Padova wear a wreath of alloro (laurel, in Italian) on the day they formally receive their laurea (university degree), which is another word, by the way, that derives from the original Latin word for this tree: Laurus Nobilis. The English term “bay leaf” derives from the Latin word bacca, which means “berry”—an ancient reference to this tree’s inedible black berries. But, it is the leaves from this tree that add taste and glory to some of our favorite Italian dishes.
Used mostly in dried form in hundreds of food preparations, bay leaves are one of the most popular spices throughout the world. In Italy, bay leaves (or alloro), like rosemary, are free for the picking; laurel trees grow wild almost everywhere – including even in the milder parts of the northern regions, mostly around the three major lakes and Liguria. Alloro is used to season many Italian meat and fish dishes, and adds an important flavor to broths and stocks – often as a component of the classic bouquet garni, which is a selection of fresh herbs (including bay leaves, parsley, thyme, rosemary, and sage) tied together into a bundle and cooked in soups, sauces or stews. Bay leaves are also used in pickled vegetables, as well as in fish and meat marinades. The leaves’ spicy taste—attributable to the content of their essential oils, especially cineole—blends beautifully in vegetable, fish and meat sauces for pasta dishes.
But remember, always remove bay leaves from food preparations before serving.