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Throughout history bay leaves have been utilized to represent honor and victory. In fact, during the first Olympics the winners of the sporting events were given a crown made of bay leaves (also known by its scientific name Laurus nobilis) as a sign of their victory. This tradition continues today by calling exceptional people Laureates (such as Nobel Laureates, Poet Laureates, etc.). The original reason for this tradition lies back in mythology, where the sun god Apollo was found to have a one-sided affection for a nymph named Daphne. After time, the other gods took pity upon Daphne and turned her into a laurel tree, which made this tree Apollo's favorite. Since Apollo was a god of sport, it was only fitting that the leaves of this tree were used to honor him. Another interesting side note for the bay leaf is that there is a tradition that the bay leaf could help protect people from witches, devils and lightening; which is why some Roman emperors would wear crowns of laurels.
Over time the pungent leaf of the laurel tree became a favorite of cooks, and has become almost indispensable to chefs the world over. The reason for this is that the bay leaf (or laurel) has an interesting combination of aromatic oils, including the oils that contain the anesthetic power of the clove and the light woodsy taste of parsley. It will take some time for the bay leave to give up its flavor while used as a seasoning, so be careful that you do not over use it. Often a single leaf can be all that you need to add just the right amount of flavor to a great stew, soup, or even pasta dish. Bay leaves also work well in conjunction with fish dishes, ragouts, custards, poultry dishes, rice dishes, curries, and so on.
In modern times, bay leaves are typically sold chopped, powdered, or pounded. The reason for this is that it allows for the leaves to release its oils quicker when cooking. This reduction in cooking time to release the taste of the bay leaves allows the reduction of general cooking time for many dishes. In addition, this increase in the ability to access the bay leaves taste helps to mask the oiliness of some fish (such as mackerel). In fact, the power of the bay leaf is so strong that a single whole bay leaf can help flavor up to two pounds of meat, two quarts of broth, or servings for up to eight people.