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.