A spicy, floral local seasoning for all seasons
Photography by John Cox
Many an intrepid local cook has likely ruined a batch of soup or sauce with the addition of a single California bay leaf. These aromatic trees, also called Umbellularia californica or “Balm of Heaven,” are common along coastal roads and hiking trails. Although similar in both aroma and appearance to the true bay laurel most commonly used in cooking, California bay laurel leaves are far stronger, with a single mature leaf having enough potency to overpower a five-gallon batch of soup and render a small pot completely useless.
But despite its potency, California bay laurel has a long history of both culinary and medicinal use. It also offers adventurous chefs an unusual variety of different seasonal textures and flavors over the course of the year.
Native Californians used the leaves to cure headaches, toothaches and earaches as well as to clear mucus in the lungs. Before you reach for the nearest California bay laurel to cure your headache, though, you should know that modern research suggests that a chemical inside the leaves, umbellulone, may actually induce headaches.
It is said that early Spanish explorers used dried and ground California bay laurel leaves as a replacement for black pepper, adding a spicy-floral note to their roasted meats. I prefer to use the young leaves—available throughout winter and the rest of the year—while they are still red and translucent; at this stage they can be used interchangeably with European bay leaves in recipes. In fact, the young leaves are so sweet and tender that they can be added directly to salads and eaten raw.
While the large bay leaves may not have much of a culinary application, they do serve as a potent insect repellent. In fact, native foragers would store their acorn supplies with bay leaves to deter pests, and people have used the leaves beneath mattresses to discourage fleas. In the spring, when the trees are in full bloom, I like to take a few blossoms and pickle them with champagne vinegar and sea salt. The tiny pickled flowers have a flavor and texture reminiscent of capers.
In late September the bay laurel trees begin to bear small green fruit that resemble avocados. In fact, the avocado is a distant relative of the California bay laurel, and the bay laurel nut’s fatty green flesh is reminiscent of ripe avocado, but more flowery and spicy. When snacking on the ripe fruit, early residents of the California coast would only eat the bottom third of the fruit, leaving the portion near the stem because the tannins made the flesh too bitter.
Inside the nut is a small round pit, just like an avocado. This seed can be roasted, peeled and ground into an oily powder. I find the flavor to be anywhere between dark chocolate and burned popcorn. The roasted seeds are said to contain a mild stimulant similar to caffeine.
Even if you don’t want to experiment with toasting your own bay nuts or pickling spring bay blossoms, I highly recommend that you keep a few young bay leaves, either dried or frozen, on hand. Bay leaf is one of those ingredients that almost seems like an obligatory afterthought in most recipes, yet provides a base flavor profile that can really elevate a dish.
John Cox is the executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant in Big Sur. He is a frequent contributor to Edible Monterey Bay and has also written for several other Edible titles. His dishes have been featured by the James Beard Foundation, Art Culinaire and other magazines.