California Bay Laurel – In Jars?

The last few days have been a little unsettling and the catalyst was this antique jar of bay leaves Creepy E found upstairs.
But Biggles, they’re just bay leaves. Why get all torqued out over a jar of old bay leaves?
Excellent question, let me say this about that. I live and grew up in the San Franciso Bay Area. California Bay Laurel trees are all over the damned place. And I’ll bet Berkeley wins the trophy for most trees of all. It’s “common knowledge” that these are most certainly not the leaves you find in the bay leaf jars at the market. These bay laurel leaves are exceptionally strong, oily and can very quickly ruin your stew. It’s irreversible and you’re better off with a nice Mediterranean version. Or so I thought.
At some point in its history Spice Islands (based in San Francisco) decided to dry and sell the buggers. To me, it’s kinda like selling bags of sand at the beach. For around here anyways.
What do you think of California Bay Laurel leaves in your food? I’ve never seen them for sale, here or anywhere. Have you?

24 thoughts on “California Bay Laurel – In Jars?

  1. Well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen California Bay in a spice shop. Penzey’s sells Turkish, I think. Someday, I am going to buy Penzey’s 1 pound bag of Bay just to see how many bay leaves you’d get.

  2. I’ll plead “uninitiated” to the California bay leaf, though I’d gladly try it. I had a tree at my last address, but I was unsophisticated and it didn’t occur to me to sample it.
    Now I have a Greek laurel tree in my patio, which I loves lots.
    I would love to compare.
    Whatchu got? I’ll swap ya stuff.

  3. This is similar to rosemary in the Pacific Northwest. Why would I pay $3.99 for a small sprig of rosemary when I have a bush the size of a Volkswagen in my backyard?

  4. Hey Cookie,
    My Bay collection is a bit stale, me thinks. I ain’t got nothin’ at the moment.
    Bay and chocolate? Really? Dang.
    Oh yeah rosemary is another one. They grow like weeds here too. Mile high bushes of rosemary, bright and green. Still, they pay.

  5. I believe the Spice Island folks still sell this stuff here in Georgia. I have an traditional kitchen herb garden (my house was built in 1797) and have never understood why people buy these things in a grocery store when they are so easy to grow. I will have to venture down that spice isle to see what dried horrors are vended from that spot now adays.

  6. California bay leaves in a jar? No!!!! A bay leaf is not a bay leaf, and inexperienced cooks who buy this product in the belief that they will get their recipes to work are going to be disappointed…and misled by Spice Island. Fresh California bay leaves, used judiciously, are fine, especially on skewers. But for dried ones, I’d stick with the Turkish (Mediterranean), which have a milder and less-toxic flavor.

  7. I remember when I moved to Mill Valley and saw the towering rangy bay trees on my property and immediately thought of $$$ — until I tried to use them. The oil factor is one thing, the heavy scent is the other. It surprises me very much to hear Shuna’s uses for them and I am still wondering if she really does mean fresh-off-the-tree California bay leaves…..My mother had a jar of the C. b. leaves (Spice Islands) in a rack that she moved from house to house without ever opening and using the contents of the jars; they were purely for decorative purposes. Your photo brought that memory back to me! Like Cookiecrumb, I grow my own culinary laurel in a pot. A little goes a long way and it’s enough for me.

  8. Once upon a time, I put one of these buggers, from my backyard tree, into a stew. Bad idea. Too pungent.
    Then, I tried drying them. Still pungent and now a little rancid, too.
    Then, one Saturday, I threw a handful into a pot of boiling water for five minutes. Air dried them. Sealed them in a zippie.
    That worked.

  9. I have a tree in my back yard, but have been scared off using the leaves by enough “foodie” horror stories like this to limit myself to judicious pruning for the compost pile only…
    I buy Indian bay leaves from my Indian grocery store. They have a nice flavor. I am not sure if they are the same as the Mediteranian ones or not, but I like them and they are cheap.

  10. Merry Christmas Biggles. And Merry Christmas to Mrs. Biggles, and all the little Biggles too.

  11. Merry Christmas,!!!!!!!!!!!
    !You Red Headed Goofball!, I hope in ’07’ thst Tou and the Misses have a lot of Meat Adventures. Ms. Goofy and I are hoping and praying that it happens. Peace, Paul

  12. lol, I have a jar of these in my kitchen that my grandmother bought god-knows-when. although I think the fact that after at least 14 years they’re still there says something about their taste.

  13. It’s true, in Norther California we are surrounded by laurel trees. In California they are California Bay Laurel (you can look up the Latin, it will be good for you), and when you cross the border they become known as Oregon Myrtlewood. The European variety is milder. Yes, they can be used to cook with. BUT, judiciously. It is advised that you DO NOT eat any part of the laurel.
    Instead of two leaves, use one half the amount or try fresher, newer leaves that haven’t had as much time to develop the oil.
    Cool jar.

  14. I first encountered CA Bay Laurel last fall on a hiking trip outside of Sacramento. I was intrigued by the scent, and used the leaves to scent homemade soap. The leaves were infused in olive oil for a couple weeks, then strained. The soap is lovely pale green color, with a not too strong scent of bay laurel. Anybody need to trim their bay laurel tree?
    Mary in zone 4

  15. The Sawyer Trail at Crystal Springs, a few miles south of San Francisco off 280, has California Bay Laurel along most of the trail and in the midle features the famous Jepson Laural.

  16. Spice Islands still sells them and I love them. They must do something to them because they aren’t oily or pungent- just don’t substitue 1 for 1 with the other stuff because they have more flavor.

  17. I live in Wisconsin, grew up in Seattle, have used the Spice Islands California Bay Laurel for years. It is my favorite bay leaf, by far superior to the Turkish used by most commercial brands including Penzie. I count on it for my ratatouille, stews, briskets, etc. Lately I haven’t been able to find it in the stores. I am very upset. Nothing substitutes, even doubling the other variety. Anyone have any clues to this disappearance? One store claims Spice Islands no longer sells bay laurel.

  18. Hey Martha,
    The California Bay Laurel and the Turkish variety are very different, as you stated. The problem occurs because an exceptionally large portion of the available recipes all use the Turkish version. When the unsuspecting consumer buys and uses the California instead of the Turkish in the same quantities it ruins the dish and makes it inedible. If they knew to use only half the amount of the California, they’d be fine.
    Luckily, the California version grows like weeds here and I don’t have to pay a thing.
    xo, Biggles