Nutmeg, an unassuming spice—or is it?

The origins of nutmeg

Nutmeg is one of those spices that comes out of hiding at this time of year.

Most of us recognize it as part of pumpkin spice, that ubiquitous blend of flavours that takes over the fall season. It then rolls into the holiday season as a sort of sidekick to cinnamon, most notably in egg nog. But have you ever wondered how it became an ingredient?

If you’ve ever seen a whole nutmeg, you might wonder, like me, how anyone figured out it was worth grating to have its sweet, woodsy flavour. Well, the story dates back a few hundred years ago to an incredibly remote group of tiny islands called the Banda Islands, near Indonesia.

The spectacular nutmeg tree looks a bit like a Christmas tree when it is full of ripe fruit. The aromatic fruit resembles an apricot and contains a lacy orange-red filling as well as its precious nut. The filling is called mace, and the nut is nutmeg. The locals on the Banda Islands use all parts of the fruit to extract its flavours.

Mace is quite rare nowadays, as it does not store well (it is not the same as the mace used in those sprays, that is a pepper spray).

The popularity of nutmeg was due in some measure to the same elements as today—shipping and handling. Transporting the spice from the remote islands involved a multi-stop voyage across the ocean to India, by land through the Middle East and then to the harbours of Venice, the gateway to Europe. It was there that it was distributed across the continent.

At every stop, the price went up. Medieval merchants in Venice amassed huge fortunes by trading nutmeg and other spices across the continent. Cinnamon and cloves were also found on the Banda Islands and all these spices became signature ingredients at lavish banquets where rich hosts could flaunt their status. Nutmeg was mentioned in Shakespeare’s stories and was served by royal courts at events.

Nutmeg was also praised for its benefits. Did you know it was said to be an aphrodisiac? Or that helped cure all manner of infections? It was said it even helped ward off the plague. It would have at least offered a pleasant smell, but none of the other benefits were proven.

Eventually, other countries worked to break the Venetian monopoly on nutmeg supply. Portuguese and Spanish sailors headed straight for the Banda Islands to create a direct route, including Columbus. But his route took him the other way and he bumped into the Americas. (I wonder if that’s why we don’t call it a nutmeg shortcut).

European ships did get there but the voyage took three years to make a return trip, across stormy seas and treacherous routes. Sailors died of scurvy and other diseases, food stocks spoiled and the natives began fighting against foreign interference in their little world.

The profit margin was over 5,000%, so companies continued to take the risk. Greed was a great motivation. Sailors weren’t even allowed to have pockets in their clothes on these trips.

The spice trade development by the Dutch and English in the 16th century created a whole new economic class—the merchant class. (It was merchants who owned the ships and made much of the profit).

Isn’t it amazing to think that a few spices could be the impetus for society evolving? But of course, this evolution had its ups and downs. The wars between the Dutch and the English continued for decades, with the Spice Islands (ie. The Banda Islands) playing a huge part.

The two sides did eventually sign a treaty in the 17th century, giving one island to the British and keeping the other five for the Dutch. However, the Dutch wanted their monopoly, so soon after, they recaptured the one English island.

Here’s a bit of trivia you can use at a holiday gathering: The English revenge for their loss in the Banda Islands was to claim an island in America then called New Amsterdam. They renamed it New York. Locals in the Banda Islands call this the “Manhattan Transfer.”

The British also managed to take nutmeg seedlings across to their colonies in the West Indies, where they flourished. (Apparently, the nutmeg used in Coca-Cola comes from there.) Eventually, there were nutmeg trees in other locations around the world, which, of course, helped to lower the price of the spice.

So, there you have it, the amazing story of that little nut sitting in your spice cupboard. I hope you’ll consider buying a whole nutmeg from now on, enjoying that exotic aroma as you grate it fresh for recipes. It deserves a show of respect, don’t you agree?

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


What are you baking for the holidays?

Holiday baking treats

Do you have visions of shortbread? Are you, like me, one of the few people who honestly likes fruitcake?

Now that we are officially in the holiday season—with a month to go before Christmas, it’s time to preheat that oven.

This week I’m going to share a few of my favourite traditional recipes. I’m hoping if you have a favourite, you are willing to share it on my Happy Gourmand Facebook page (comments aren’t available here). It will be like a virtual cookie exchange.

I know sugar cookies are often a favourite for those who like to decorate their cookies but in my house, growing up, we had shortbread to decorate and that took all our creative juices (and patience).

There was plenty of mess with sprinkles and glacé cherries and chocolate chips. I think my mom just never mentioned icing as an option for her own sanity.

Her recipe for shortbread is a bit unique, so if you’re up for a change, here it is. They are made with golden sugar.

Our other family tradition came from my dad’s side of the family – the Icelandic side. Their version of a Christmas cake is a torte made of cookie-like layers that hold a cardamom-infused prune filling. Vinertarta, as it’s called, is still one of my cherished holiday treats. It is much less cloying than the English fruitcake, and quicker to make, too.

A treat that I took on as a standard years ago is great to have at a party – Spiced Praline Nuts. I first did it at our Rabbit Hollow Dessert Party, our yearly neighbourhood event that offered a groaning table of various treats that Hubbie and I would make to share. (It’s a great way to get to know your neighbours, and also to spread the calories around.) The party is back on this year after the pandemic hiatus, so I dug out my recipe:

2-1/2 cups nuts (walnuts, pecans, or your choice)
1 cup sugar
¾ tsp cinnamon, ¼ tsp each ground ginger, nutmeg and cloves
1/3 cup evaporated milk
1 tbsp water (or rum for an adult crowd, if you wish)
½ tsp vanilla extract

Toast nuts at 375 F in the oven or toaster oven. Prepare baking sheet with silicone mat for finished mixture. In a heavy saucepan, combine sugar, spices and evaporated milk. Cook over medium heat stirring constantly until mixture boils and sugar dissolves. Cook until mixture reaches 234 F on digital thermometer or candy thermometer (soft ball stage if you know candy). Remove from heat and add water and vanilla. Stir well.

Toss in nuts and stir to coat, moving quickly (it will start to get stiffer). Be careful, this stuff is sticky and hot. Spread onto baking sheet in a single layer and let cool. Break into bite-size pieces and serve in a fancy dish or package as gifts.

Maybe in next week’s column, I should offer some diet-friendly recipes after this indulgence.

Wait, what am I thinking? You come here for gourmandise, don’t you? I’ll leave it to you to do your own balancing of treats and veggie sticks.

See you in the grocery store baking aisle.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Bring more people to the table this holiday season

Holiday socializing

Can you believe it? We are entering the holiday season.

I don’t know where the time goes. It’s like socks in the dryer. I wonder, does it seem to go faster when we are older or younger? I have almost always wanted to pack more into a day. As I get older, I have learned to pause and enjoy the moments as they come instead of rushing to be ready for the next one.

Since the holiday season generally means there are more opportunities to gather, I thought a good theme this week might be to get the most out of those opportunities. So, here are my humble suggestions, and a bit of research to back you up if anyone wants to argue with your idea of trying them out.

The concept of longevity is a hot topic these days as living longer becomes more common. Everyone also wants to be happier and more fulfilled for their long lives. If you have heard of the Blue Zones research (the study of those places on Earth where people have made it a habit to live this way) then you know about eating healthy and being active by moving and being social. (If you’re curious to know more, just ask Google about Blue Zones.)

The latest aspect I learned of in this realm is what they call “The Grandmother Effect.” It is the benefit that comes from families who are able to live together with multiple generations all helping to run the household. With the knowledge and connection that is shared amongst family members, everyone has a much better chance to be happier, more fulfilled and less stressed.

This same principle could be applied to a chosen family as well. Your inner circle of people can help support you and keep you accountable, and your shared experiences help everyone avoid feeling isolated or out of touch.

Meal time is a fantastic opportunity, not just for making healthy eating choices but it can also contribute to healthy conversation and connection, which has shown to help young people form healthy living habits that they carry through life. (Yes, I did just give you one more reason to sit down at the dinner table together.)

If you are afraid you won’t be able to start a conversation, try adding something to get things started, like everyone sharing a funny moment, something they learned or you could print out the conversation dice that the Blue Zones team created. I love these prompts as an icebreaker. You could easily substitute other ideas, too. (link: https://www.bluezones.com/blue-zones-conversation-cubes/ )

If you’re really feeling adventurous, go around the table and have different people cook different meals. Or you could work the potluck idea – everyone contributes a dish. In some households, that might require some creative scheduling in the kitchen (batch cooking helps), but it could also allow even little kids a chance to participate by helping with “accessories” like condiments, salad dressing, etc.

It seems everything can be summed up in a meme in today’s world. Often, we employ sarcasm to showcase our dissatisfaction with the status quo, and we joke about being obsessed with junk foods.

This holiday season why not focus on the company first and then enjoy the meals and the treats, each for their own merits? It really can be a time of “the more, the merrier”.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Remembering sacrifice of others shouldn't be limited to one day a year

Keep the home fires burning

With Remembrance Day this weekend it seemed appropriate to write something about keeping the home fires burning.

It occurred to me this translates into today’s world too, and not just for those with loved ones in a war zone. It is important to remember those who fought for our freedom and way of life, but I think we can also use this time to remember we should all enjoy those liberties every day and not just on special occasions.

Soldiers away from home know how precious the everyday mundane tidbits of life are to our livelihoods. That’s why many of them serve in the military.

People who live in war zones often remind us we can be grateful even for the smallest advantage that makes a day brighter. Those people who know their time or resources for living are limited, tend to make the most of it and live life to the fullest.

The rest of us should take note and think of their example. The phrase “keep the home fires burning” refers to those who were at home, not to those away at war. The power of knowing that families back home were keeping things normal and ready for their return was a great strength for the troops in the field. The same is true for loved ones of someone who is ill. Positive energy goes a long way in warming the heart and soul.

When I was little, my Gramps had a saying he liked and one year, I wrote it out for him and framed it as a gift. When he passed away years ago, my mom gave it to me as a keepsake. I have put it in a prominent spot as a reminder.

The Clock of Life is wound but once
And no man has the power
To tell just when the hands will stop,
At late or early hour.
Live, love, toil with a will
But place no faith in Tomorrow,
For the clock may then be still.

In doing research for this column, I found out that the poem was written by Robert H. Smith. The version my grandfather knew (printed above) was the adapted one that became famous as the note in the pocket of Edward J. O’Hare’s coat when they found him gunned down on Nov. 8, 1939.

O’Hare was famous as the lawyer who helped federal prosecutors put Al Capone in jail for tax evasion, but he had a full life, too. O’Hare made a fortune representing the fellow who invented the mechanical rabbit for greyhound racing, and he knew Charles Lindbergh, even hitching a plane ride with him once.

He was involved with Capone for years but then turned on him by approaching the IRS, and was instrumental in producing many parts of the case against Capone. He was gunned down one week before Al Capone was to be released from prison.

Was this a note he kept as his own reminder, or was it put there by those who stopped the clock for him? Does it really matter?

I hope you will forgive me for being a bit sentimental this week, but with the state of world affairs, it seemed appropriate. Having lost my mom this year, and with her being my last family link to the past, I suppose I value the future even more now.

In closing, here is Robert H. Smith original poem, which does an even nicer job of making the point, I think.

The Clock of Life

The clock of life is wound but once,
And no man has the power
To tell just when the hands will stop
At late or early hour.

To lose one's wealth is sad indeed,
To lose one's health is more,
To lose one's soul is such a loss
That no man can restore.

The present only is our own,
So live, love, toil with a will,
Place no faith in "Tomorrow,"
For the Clock may then be still.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Happy Gourmand articles

About the Author

Kristin Peturson-Laprise is a customer experience specialist by trade, which means she is someone passionate about people having a good time. 

Her company, Wow Service Mentor, helps businesses enhance their customer experience through hands-on training, service programs, and special event coordination.

Kristin enjoys her own experiences too, and that is what she writes about in this column. She and her husband Martin Laprise (also known as Chef Martin, of The Chef Instead) love to share their passion for food and entertaining.  

Kristin says:

"Wikipedia lists a gourmand as a person who takes great pleasure in food. I have taken the concept of gourmandise, or enjoying something to the fullest, in all parts of my life. I love to grow and cook food, and I loved wine enough to become a Sommelier. I call a meal a success when I can convey that 'sense of place' from where the food has come . . . the French call that terroir, but I just call it the full experience. It might mean tasting the flavours of my own garden, or transporting everyone at the table to a faraway place, reminiscent of travels or dreams we have had."


E-mail Kristin at:  [email protected]

Check out her website here:  www.wowservicementor.com


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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