I forage as much for the pleasure of the hunt as for the tasty reward I bring home to my kitchen. Sunny autumn afternoons peering at the base of oak trees for maitake and dark summer evenings jigging for squid are deeply satisfying ways to spend time. Some harvests are so plentiful, however, that there is no hunt, no hours spent searching, no checking season and weather to see if the time is right.
Northern Bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, is one of these. When my supply runs low, I simply go out to a ledge behind my house and pick what I need. Bayberry leaves can be gathered from spring until late fall. Pungent and fragrant, bayberry is common here in Maine on rocky ledges and roadsides. I use the leaves in pea soup, pickled onions, and it has a star role in deer pot roast.
This is not the bay leaf that I remember my mother using sparingly and always with a slight frown. We had a battered red and white tin of it, and I don’t think she ever bought a new one, so that bay must have been pretty old. She did not like the smell and did not like the stiff, dried remains in the stew pot. But her mother believed it was an essential ingredient for beef stew, and so my mother grudgingly tossed a half a leaf into the pot each time she made it, warning me that a whole leaf was way too strong. All the years I knew her and her stew, this never varied. She was far more obedient than I.
That bay was sweet bay laurel, Laurus nobilus, from the Mediterranean. That is the bay referred to when people say, “She earned her laurels.” It was sacred to the gods, and crowns were made of it for heroes, and outstanding poets and athletes. The word bay comes from the Old French Baie, which originally meant the berry, not the plant.
Then there is the bay used in bay rum. Those leaves come from the West Indian Bay Tree, Pimenta racemosa. Sailors used to rub these leaves on their bodies before some clever entrepreneur preserved them in rum, providing generations of sailors and manly men with bay rum, a scent that made them smell as mannish as they were.
The bay I gather is neither manly nor Mediterranean. It has a similar scent to the dried leaves I used as a child, but maybe because those were in a tin for unknown years, this wild bay has a fresher flavor, oily and pungent. It is the vibrant, aromatic spirit of that sad old bay leaf my mother used.
I use bayberry leaf in any recipe that calls for bay leaf, and have never been disappointed. I use it fresh when I have just collected it, or dried, if it has been months since I gathered. I sometimes see the waxy berries that distinguish our Maine bay from the Mediterranean variety. Early American colonists use these berries for making candles and soaps, but I have yet to see enough berries to tempt me into candle making.
Tapping trees and making syrup takes effort, hunting mushrooms requires patience and an understanding of when and where to find them, collecting clams or mussels needs attention to tides and algae. It takes about ten minutes to go get a year’s supply of bay. But those minutes bring me outside, into the sun. I crush a few leaves in my fingers to release the sweet odor. I am not a hero or an athlete, but I am happily rewarded by the heady scent of our Northern Bay
German Pot Roast
2 cups water
1 cup cider vinegar
1 large yellow onion, sliced
10 whole cloves
4 bayberry leaves ( or old dried-out bay leaf)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon whole juniper berries
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1 (4 pound) deer hind quarter roast
2 cups chopped onions
2 cups chopped carrots
10 gingersnap cookies, crushed
Marinade: Bring water, vinegar, 1/2 onion, garlic, cloves, bay leaves, sugar, juniper berries, and peppercorns to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes.
Place meat in a non-reactive and pour marinade over it, completely covering meat. Marinate in the refrigerator 2 to 3 days, turning the roast twice a day.
Pat meat dry and braise on high, sealing all surfaces. This will generate steam and vinegar smell, so keep the fan going. Place onions, carrots, and celery in a dutch oven. Add carrots, onions and half the marinade (save the rest) and cook on low for 5+ hours till meat falls apart. Add more marinade to be sure meat has plenty of liquid around it and does not burn.
Take meat out and put on platter. Add gingersnaps to pot and heat until thickened. Serve gravy separately.