Late winter, and the bareness of earth and larder brings with it an opportunity for clear thinking. A time to prune and plan, to make sharp decisions, to take a knife to the flab. This week I acted on a niggling urge to move the kitchen to another part of the house, to rethink an unsuccessful area of the garden, and to take much of my wardrobe to the charity shop. It was also the week in which I took the shears to the bay tree.
Bay leaves have always intrigued me. Their work is secret and difficult to define. Their effect on your supper is less obvious than that of rosemary or thyme. Bay is the most discreet of the woody herbs, often overlooked by the inexperienced cook, who probably wonders what exactly is the point of throwing laurel leaves into your stew only to oik them out again later.
The tree, more of a twig in those days, was the first herb I planted when I laid out this little kitchen garden. It is often the first herb I add to the pot, too; an invisible backbone to the other more obvious herbal additions. In terms of trees, I wholeheartedly recommend it. A bay bush needs very little attention, and its diminutive flower buds are charming. In a breeze its leaves rustle like waves over shingle.
Bay first showed me its stuff in Provence, on a farm that made its own olive oil and jars of dark and salty tapenade. The only seasoning in the proprietors' black-olive and anchovy spread was ground bay, used in the sort of heroic quantity that came as something of a shock. We ate it spread thinly on thin, crisp oven-toast.
Initially this was the leaf we added to rice pudding. My family tucked one under the grains and sugar before the oval Pyrex dish went silently into the Aga. As a tree, it was what made our scullery a dark and forbidding hole. Laurus nobilis has always added a certain mystery. There is one round the corner from me that is truly magnificent, hanging aromatically across the pavement. I wouldn't imagine the greengrocer gets much call when such treasure is there for anyone to take the secateurs to. At 2m high, mine is more modest, but much of it hangs in hand-tied bunches above the washing machine. Its dried leaves will keep me in rice pudding for many a month.
As a flavouring, bay is subtle. (Though caught on the grill it has distinctly something of the spliff about it.) In large quantity it is said to be narcotic. The leaves are best in liquid of some sort, where their oil can calmly filter its way round the other ingredients. I like it very much with milky puddings, such as white-chocolate mousse, vanilla rice pudding and even ice cream. Here you have to be restrained in the quantity you use.
Where bay leaves are really worth using with a devil-may-care attitude is with potatoes and meat. I have cooked Maris Pipers, thinly sliced, with whole leaves and cream, and this week let six of them infuse in the warm milk for mashed potatoes to give a sloppy, slightly herbal puree. Steeping pork in a marinade of olive oil and bay gives a fine roast, and that delicious yet curiously unattractive Italian dish of pork that has been allowed to cook long and slow with milk is improved 10 times over with bay leaves in the clotted cooking juices.
If you have the quantity of prunings I have around at the moment you might like to try using the leaves as a bed for a roast chicken or piece of beef, or tying them round a fillet of beef like a racing driver's wreath. The leaves store better in jars than hanging from the rafters. Mine will be packed into old storage jars as soon as they are dry to the touch but before they are hard enough to snap.
Potatoes with milk and bay
I love buttery, cloud-like mash, but sometimes I want something softer, a little sloppy even. I use a floury-textured winter potato beaten with butter and hot milk. It produces a completely different puree to those made with waxy potatoes, one I feel is more suited to winter recipes. Stop adding the warm milk when you have the texture you like. Right now I want mine to almost slide off the plate like thick soup. Enough for 4.
6 medium- to large potatoes
5 bay leaves
Peel the potatoes and boil them in deep salted water until tender. Put the bay leaves into the milk and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat and set aside. The bay leaves will gently flavour the milk.
Drain the potatoes, then return them to the pan and cover with a lid and leave for five minutes.
Tip the potatoes into a food mixer and beat with the butter and a little black pepper. With the beater on slow, pour in the flavoured milk, leaving the bay leaves behind, and continue beating till soft and almost sloppy.
Check the seasoning, then serve immediately.
Milk braised pork with bay leaves
You want a cut of meat with plenty of fat to keep the meat moist as it cooks. This Bolognese classic is not a particularly attractive recipe, but it is delicious. Serves 4.
a 1.5kg piece of fatty pork such as belly, bones intact
3 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
6 bay leaves
200ml white vermouth such as Noilly Prat
Peel and very finely slice the garlic: you want it to virtually dissolve during cooking. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based casserole over a moderate heat. Put the pork in fat side down and let it colour on all sides. Drop in the garlic, bay leaves, milk and vermouth and bring to the boil. Partially cover with a lid (leave just a crack open), then leave to simmer very, very gently for two and a half hours or so, until the meat is tender and the milk and wine have curdled into little brown lumps.
As the meat approaches tenderness, the liquid will have concentrated to little more than blobs of curdled milk and a few fatty juices. The flavour is deeply aromatic, and it is essential not to let it burn. Keep the heat very low, and watch these juices carefully. You just want enough to spoon over the sliced meat. Remove the meat, which by now will be wobbly and almost falling apart, and leave it to rest for 10 minutes. Serve with the coagulated juices from the pan and some potato puree.