Bay watch is a favourite
You often see shaggy old bay trees growing in the gardens of cottages and farmhouses in the West Country. Their chief purpose was not to flavour a stew but to protect the place against witches, which is why you find them planted so close to the houses. We've been lucky to have inherited old bay trees in both the places we've lived in Dorset. The one in the rectory garden was by the front gate, a tangle of suckering growths that, unchecked, had pushed through the ivy to make an impenetrable evergreen thicket.
There is one in our present garden too, almost as big, and suckering in the same profligate way. Its branches spread at least 20 feet high and wide. Hoping the witches weren't watching, we gradually reduced its spread, by taking off a branch a year. But it still cast too big a shadow, so a few years ago we turned it into a massive topiary ball. I'm amazed at how easily it accepted this onslaught and how generously it leafed up to fill in the gaps. It's the first thing you see when you turn into the yard. Witches of course would see it from a different perspective, but I don't think they could miss it. It's still very big.
The ability to protect has been stitched into accounts of the bay tree since Greek and Roman times. The Roman historian Pliny mentions it and it was perhaps the Romans who first brought it into Britain. It's better adapted to a Mediterranean climate than to ours and is not considered to be reliably hardy in this country. I noticed that the rectory bay had unusually large, broad, shiny leaves with smooth rather than crinkled edges. So has the tree that we inherited here. You'd imagine that these large leaves would make the tree more prone to damage by frost than the type you usually find in garden centres, which has relatively narrow, dull dark leaves with wavy edges. But it doesn't.
When we first came here, we brought with us eight lollipop bay trees planted in half barrels (they were not popular with the removal men). I'd originally acquired them from the Columbia Road Sunday market in London, where you could often find expensive stuff such as topiary bay trees cheaper than anywhere else. But like most bay, these had been imported from Italy and had the dullish, narrowish, crinkled leaves typical of the imported trees.
I'd bought them to help decorate a tent for a wedding, but by the time we arrived here they had grown pretty large, and the barrels dried out quite quickly. I got tired of worrying about watering them and, with the help of our brilliant sack truck, we got them up the bank and planted them out along the back of the flower garden.
Then came the tough winters, during one of which, even here in the West Country, the temperature did not rise above freezing point for three weeks. And there were some horrific gales, which for evergreens are almost more of a problem. The bought-in trees suffered badly (though they have since recovered) and I had to cut out whole branches that had completely died back.
But the big old bay in the yard scarcely noticed the weather. A few leaves browned at their tips. That was all. So it made me wonder whether selection by generation after generation of growers has given us a strain of bay that is hardier than the norm?
No one who cooks can be without bay. Even before Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson started going on about bouquet garni (a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme and a stalk of parsley tied in a little bundle), bay had long been used in English dishes, mostly as an infusion. It's unusual in that you don't eat it, as you do most other herbs. You just borrow its flavour and its mouth-watering aroma.
If you have a good-sized tree, you can cut a branch to throw on a barbecue, which gives a superb flavour to grilled lamb. But mostly you'll be using it a leaf at a time, so a small tree in a pot may provide all you need. Bay is particularly good infused in the milk with which you are going to make a cheese sauce. I generally crush or twist the leaf first so that it releases more of its flavour.
Although bay trees look wonderful in pots, they will grow more happily in the ground. Choose a place with some protection from wind. If you have a trained tree, such as a lollipop or pyramid, clip it to shape any time this month or next.