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Caribbean elixir

A Caribbean 'rum' that is a particularly favoured fragrance in Trinidad is the product of mixing essential oils with alcohol. Popular as a skin lotion, a stimulating liniment for the frail and elderly and used in hair treatments to stimulate the scalp, Bay Rum is just one of a variety of products made from the leaves of the tropical bay tree, Pimenta racemosa. Indigenous to northern South America and the Caribbean, tropical bay is a sturdy, evergreen tree of the Myrtle family which has been cultivated for commercial purposes for 80-90 years in some West Indian Islands. Originally, whole leaves only were exported but bay oil, distilled from the leaves, is now the basis of an expanding industry.

Bay oil products - dried Bay leaves, bay rum and bay soap
credit: Pamela Collins

Dominica is currently the main centre in the Caribbean for producing bay oil, which is exported to the USA and Europe for use in perfumes and cosmetics and also to Trinidad for making Bay Rum. Bay Rum was initially prepared by collecting the distillate from boiling bay leaves in white rum, but is now made from a combination of bay oil, citrus and spice oils, alcohol and water. The Bay tree grows throughout Dominica but production and distilleries are concentrated in the south east of the island. The oil is produced in several small distilleries, many of which are run as co-operatives, by distilling the steam from boiling leaves, a traditional process that gives Dominican oil its distinctive colour and sweet, spicy, aroma. Trees are also cultivated in Tobago, where a government-owned estate has been the site of research trials for recent attempts to revitalise the industry. The oil produced in Tobago is more highly refined than bay oil produced in other regions of the Caribbean as it is extracted from steam distillation of whole leaves. Possibilities for export are currently being explored for Tobago bay oil as well as adding value to locally produced items, such as soap, with the addition of the oil. Traditionally, whole leaves are also used as seasoning for foods, pickles and vinegars and as a medicinal tea to treat colds and flu. However, other niche markets for tropical bay extracts may also evolve as medicinal uses are further investigated. It is, for instance, an important ingredient, in a herbal supplement promoted for aiding stress associated with the withdrawal symptoms people suffer when quitting smoking.

Unlike some other plant extracts, it is not easy to produce an acceptable synthetic substitute, as bay oil is a particularly complex essential oil with over 20 components. It also has a very long shelf life. As the original oil is almost always preferred and the tree itself is extremely hardy and can even be grown on poor, rocky soils, more producers are being encouraged to take advantage of this natural Caribbean concoction.

Note: Tropical bay should not be confused with the temperate, or 'sweet' bay, Laurus nobilis, the leaves of which are also used as a seasoning for food. A close relative of the Bay tree is the Pimento tree, whose seeds are used to produce 'allspice'.

(Article submitted by Pamela Collins, freelance journalist, Trinidad & Tobago)

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