California Bay Laurel grows along the California coast and the Southwest Oregon coast. The flowers and young shoots sprout in late winter and early spring.
Cox suggests storing California bay laurel frozen and dried. The bay fruit also freezes well, he says, for sauces or purées.
The larger leaves are very bitter; pick young, spring shoots for more palatable flavor.
Roast nuts until they are very dark, similar to coffee, to reduce bitterness.
The fruit doesn’t grow evenly—the area near the stem is quite bitter—so only the bottom two-thirds of the fruit is usable.
In the past year Chef John Cox has learned the rhythms and tapped the essence of California bay laurel. There are nearly 600 trees on the expansive property at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, where Cox serves as executive chef. He and his team are now tethered to the trees’ growing cycle, gathering flowers and harvesting the young leaf shoots during the spring and picking fruit throughout the year. Cox has turned that hard work into a beautiful boar dish that highlights the bright, floral spice of California bay and uses every part of the tree—leaves, nuts, fruit, blossoms—to show off local flavor.
Cox was first introduced to the area’s wild laurel when he got his start working at Post Ranch’s Sierra Mar restaurant 10 years ago. “I always knew [California] bay laurel was related somewhat to European bay, but I thought it was too strong to cook with,” he says. In fact, the California variety, a hardwood that’s native to the coastal forests of California and southwest Oregon, has about 7 percent essential oils—about six times stronger than the European variety.
Wild Boar Tenderloin with Bay Laurel, and Persimmon
Whole California Bay Laurel
Bay Laurel Nut
Matured Bay Laurel Tree
When Cox returned to Sierra Mar last year, he was inspired by the abundance of laurel growing on the property. He researched a number of historical uses—the Spanish dried the leaves, while Native American’s roasted the nuts for a coffee-like drink—and sampled different size leaves. “The big leaves are way too strong, so strong they can actually give you a headache,” he says. “But when you get really young leaves, they are very similar to European leaves.” Although he can find some version of these young shoots throughout the year, Cox finds the flavor best during the spring and sends out cooks to harvest as many leaves as possible during this time. The leaves are then frozen and used throughout the year.
For his boar dish, Cox first looked to the relationship between boar and bay. The area is home to a large population of wild boar that feed on the bay laurel, so Cox started with apple cider-bay brine for the meat. To incorporate more bay flavor, he next turned to the bay fruit, which looks and tastes similar to miniature avocados (avocados and bay belong to the same plant family, Lauraceae). Puréed with lime juice, honey, and spinach, it becomes a bright, tangy sauce alongside the meat. Taking inspiration from Native Americans, Cox then roasted the nuts slowly, releasing some of the bitter oils, before grinding them with a sugar and cocoa to form a rich, deep earthy powder.
The distinctive flavors of the dish coalesce to create an intricately drawn portrait of California’s bay laurel: spicy, herbaceous, and floral. Initially, Cox intended to emphasize the boar-bay connection. But the foraging and creative processes led the dish (and the chef) to an unexpected conclusion. “In general, as a chef, I always think of bay leaf as a base flavor. Whether in a soup or stock, it plays a supporting role, and fills in flavor gaps,” says Cox. “But in this dish, the bay becomes more of a focus, even more than the boar.”
As Cox watched the bay laurel continue to blossom and grow throughout the past year, the concept has continued to evolve. Bay flowers were added as a finishing element when they blossomed in early spring. Instead of a simple garnish, Cox pickled the buds in Riesling vinegar, adding a nice acidic pop.
“As we foraged different parts of the bay tree—froze the nuts, pickled the blossoms, toasted the bay nuts, froze the bay leaves—eventually we had one year’s cycle of the bay tree,” says Cox. “That’s when I considered the dish to be complete. Each [component of the bay tree has] its own distinctive quality, and it really gives an excellent portrait of what the California bay laurel tree is.”