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The American Bay Leaf Turns 100!

The popular American variety of bay leaves (laurus bougustia), also known as sweet bay and laurel, is a kitchen staple used widely to flavor meats, soups, stews, gravies and vegetable dishes.

It's a little known fact that nearly all of the bay leaves commercially produced in America come from just thirteen prolific trees, the Thirteen Sisters, located in the Napa Valley.

The Thirteen Sisters are all genetically identical, having been started by a single cutting imported from the Mediterranean in 1904. Other growers have attempted to bring in different varieties from Europe, but due to a rare synergy between the original variety and the local soil, none have been successful in improving on the superb taste of the leaves from the Thirteen Sisters.

Terence Carver Overton, owner of the farm where the Thirteen Sisters are located, has his own take on why the flavor can't be duplicated: "There's lots of European varieties, and some are pretty good, but the particular strain my great grandfather brought over was taken from a variety that really wasn't very tasty. It was just dumb luck that the soil here in the Napa Valley was exactly what this variety needed to make it a great one."

Let's bid Happy 100th Birthday to the American Bay Leaf in 2004!

Q: Why are bay leaf trees the comedians of spice?
A: Because they are Laurel and Hardy.

Recipe: Sweet Laurel Sorbet

50 or 60 bay leaves
2 cups boiling water
2 cups plus 2 tbsp granulated sugar
zest from one lime
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
dash of salt

Reserve several bay leaves for garnish. Crush the remaining leaves in a mortar and pestle, or pulse them in a food processor until finely chopped. Place in a large bowl and add the boiling water. Let steep for 30 minutes. Pass the liquid through a fine strainer or cheesecloth to remove all solids. Add sugar (hint: it may be easier to dissolve the sugar if you reheat the liquid for a minute in the microwave). Add the lime zest, salt and cream of tartar, and place in a one-quart Ziploc bag and seal. Place in freezer. Every 30 minutes, remove the bag from the freezer and knead, to break up any frozen chunks. After 3 hours of kneading, allow the bag to freeze overnight. Serve with fresh fruit, and garnish with the reserved bay leaves.

Source: International Spice Council