The West Indian bay leaf is highly fragrant and aromatic, much more than its Turkish, Indonesian, Californian or Indian counterparts. The flavor is intense and highly spiced; it is for this reason that in some parts of the Caribbean, The West Indian bay leaf is known simply as, The Spice Tree. The West Indian bay leaf has notes of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg with hints of vanilla and cardamom.
Large, towering trees of sweet bay (another name it goes by) can be found throughout the Caribbean. Bay leaves are available all year round and are mostly sold in its fresh form, simply because of the abundance.
West Indian bay leaves vary in size, they can range from 2 to 5 inches in height and can be as wide as 2 and a half inches. The leaves are thick and shiny. The color ranges from a bright green to bottle green. The darker the leaves, the more mature and robust the flavor of the bay leaf.
In the Caribbean, like other places, bay leaves are used for cooking rice dishes, soups and stews. However, the bay leaf is most prized when cooked in porridges such as oats porridge or plantain porridge. Bay leaves are also made into tea - you can make bay leaf tea, bay leaf and lemon grass tea or bay leaf and cocoa tea.
While bay leaves are prized in the West Indian kitchen, it is also used in other parts of the home - as an air freshener and as an insect repellent. Fresh bay leaves are strewn in pantries and cupboards to keep away insects. And, because fresh bay leaves are always available, replenishing this natural air freshener and insect repellent is never a problem.
The Caribbean also has a rich heritage of folk medicine and to this day, you can find older folk recommending a hot cup of bay leaf tea to lower blood pressure, help with digestive problems or to get rid of a headache.
Note: Only the leaves of Pimenta racemosa are used in cooking and tea. All other parts of the plant, including the berries, are not edible and should not be ingested.