My earliest foray into Roman history came courtesy of Asterix, the indomitable Gallic warrior of cartoon pedigree. His usual adversary was none other than then equally-impressive Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome, and a man for whom March was the wrong time for a work party.
What I couldn’t work out in the comic books (other than why the morbidly obese Obelix would choose to wear horizontal stripes) was the nest that sat on top of Caesar’s head. It was a laurel wreath, and he wore it as a crown.
We know the laurel tree as the bay tree in Australia, and it’s crowning glory is in the kitchen. But with further reading I learned that for ancient societies throughout the Mediterranean, the laurel wreath of garland was the ultimate symbol of honour, success and glory.
Olympian athletes were bedecked in bay leaves, Greek philosophers would be granted a laurel garland when they won a poetry competition. In Rome, a laurel wreath was the official recognition of a conquering general.
Its provenance as a mark of excellence derives in part from the tree’s massive size, but also from its ubiquitous culinary usage. The Romans even infused sweet wine with bay leave to make the official drink of the Senate, known as ratafia, a style still made by some boutique Australian vignerons.
For the cook, there is a world of difference between fresh and dried leaves – the wondrous aroma of fresh leaves is unmistakeable, whilst dried leaves are politely musky. In fact, bay leaves are best used a week after picking, when their humidity has declined slightly, leaving a higher concentration of essential oils, but before those oils break down by drying fully.
Bay leaves are also an ancient way of driving out pantry moths. Simply hang a bunch of fresh bay leaves (not dried) in your larder, and the moths and roaches disappear. This is due to the presence of eugenol and myrcene, the critical perfumes that characterise fresh bay leaves.
By leaves are, however, inedible. Their tough leathery texture doesn’t break down, no matter how long you cook them for, so remember to tie the leaves into a bouquet garni with kitchen string for easy removal after simmering.
That said, the bay leaf remains the king of herbs. It is used in cuisines from Vietnam to Portugal, and just about everywhere in between. So, grab a fresh bunch at the greengrocer, or grown your own tree. It will be your crowning moment.
Potato, leek and bay leaf soup