When I first smelled the leaves of the California bay tree (Umbellularia californica, also known as Oregon myrtle) I immediately hoped it was edible. The sweet, pungent, flowery perfume is quite intoxicating, and I assumed it must be a local delicacy. But no-one I talked to seemed sure if it was safe – and some people even thought it definitely wasn’t. How could something that seemed so temptingly delicious be out of bounds? Still, in the land of innocent-looking but evil-at-heart poison oak, it’s always wise to exercise caution. I was on a mission to discover the truth and, hopefully, find a way of eating that scent.
The research brought good news – other people had used both the leaves and the fruit and lived to tell the tale! But the warnings were clear: although it used to be a native American headache remedy, it could also cause a severe headache, even a migraine, so NEVER make the mistake of thinking you can use the same quantities as you might of the European culinary bay, Laurus nobilis. In summary: exercise caution, use younger leaves which contain less volatile oil, and in this as in all things remember the principle that less can be more.
If you want to read more about the tree, the Paleotechnics site is a good place to start, with its lovely descriptions of the folklore and other uses of this tree. The site also has loads more fantastic advice and information on the art and technologies of early peoples, and workshops with irresistible themes like ‘hunter gatherer skills’ and ‘primitive technology’. A must for next time I’m in California!
I decided on a water ice as the cleanest way of tasting the bay. I ran these experiments in a period when I couldn’t eat eggs, but think it would also make a delicious sorbet with egg white, if you want that different texture.
10 fresh young California bay leaves (if you have dried leaves use half this quantity)
1l (35 fl oz) cold water
300g (11 oz) caster sugar
Soak the leaves in the cold water overnight at room temperature. Put the steeped leaves and their water in a saucepan, add the sugar, and bring slowly to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for 5 minutes then remove from the heat, cover, and allow to cool. Refrigerate until really cold, preferably overnight.
Strain the mixture into a jug, and add lemon juice to taste (up to one lemon’s worth of juice). Start your ice-cream making machine, pour in the liquid, and churn until it is the consistency of lightly whipped cream. Pour into a clean box and freeze.
This is really good served on its own as a palate cleanser or as a light dessert with some plain, crisp biscuits.