Bay leaves are an important seasoning in many cuisines. The sturdy leaves of the bay plants (there are several types) are usually used in long-cooked dishes, such as soups, stews and braises, so the strong, distinctive aroma and pungent taste can perfume the other ingredients. Bay is used sparingly, though, because its slight bitterness and medicinal taste can overwhelm; usually, one or two leaves will suffice. The bay leaf is tough - it doesn't soften, even when cooked for a long time, and so it's discarded after use. It's difficult to find fresh bay except in places where the plants are cultivated, and therefore the leaves are usually sold after being dried. When buying dried leaves, look for a pale green colour and reject those that are brown, which indicates they're old.
Bay is also known as laurel. Wreaths of laurel leaves were used to crown winning athletes at the ancient Olympic Games in Greece.
Bay leaf essential oil is believed to be calming and good for the digestion, and is used to alleviate muscle pains, headaches and symptoms of cold.