It’s hard to imagine a time when most spices weren’t just a walk, bike or lyft away. Notably, a time when black pepper was considered “black gold,” a spice that’s now as ubiquitous as salt. Thanks to the modern economy, most spices today aren’t far from reach, nutmeg being one of them.
Nutmeg, has one of the bloodiest histories of all of the world’s spices, but I’ll spare you the gruesome details. Nutmeg likely evolved on the Spice Islands of Bandas (Indonesia) and for centuries this was the only place in the world it grew, which put the Bandas on the map for the rest of the world. It was traded to Byzantium by the sixth century, the Persians were familiar with it in 1000 AD, and Arabs traded nutmeg through the dark and middle ages through Venice where the European high society had their fill. As with any rare commodity, nutmeg was outrageously expensive, and only noble or wealthy individuals generally had access to it.
In the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company set their sights on the Bandas. They quickly massacred and enslaved the Bandanese, and seized control over all the islands in the archipelago, with the exception of one. Meanwhile, the English arranged trade on the sole island of Rhun and the Dutch fought them for decades to gain complete control. Then in 1667, the English and the Dutch formed a treaty: the British wanted Manhattan and its city New Amsterdam (later New York) and the Dutch wanted the last nutmeg producing island and they swapped. The Dutch then mercilessly controlled the nutmeg trade and the Spice Islands until 1769. In the end, a Frenchmen snuck onto the islands and smuggled the prized crop which allowed the French to transplant seeds on their land for good. The British then occupied the islands and the expansion of nutmeg cultivation spread to other parts of Asia, the Caribbean and Zanzibar. The latter of which I visited this year and had the privilege of seeing nutmeg grow for myself and learned a thing or two.
In those early times, Nutmeg was more than flavoring. Like most spices, it was traded as a scent, used as incense, medicine and was also believed to be an aphrodisiac. During the time of the plague, it was thought to ward off the Black Death, and there’s a possibility it actually could have because fleas supposedly disliked the smell and may not have bitten someone that was scented with it. In fact, large doses of nutmeg can be intoxicating and dangerous, causing hallucinations, palpitations, convulsions and other symptoms, and is fatal to a lot of animals, including dogs.
The exotic spice we are all familiar with is produced from the seed of a tropical evergreen tree (Myristica fragrans). These trees can live to 100 years and yield up to 20,000 nutmegs in a single season! I was recently enlighten to learn of mace (pictured below), which is a thin, lacy, protective layer that encloses the seed (aka Aril) and is also used as a spice and historically was more common to cook with. Mace has a slightly warm taste, similar to nutmeg with a bit more delicate flavor. It’s used to flavor baked goods, meat, fish dishes, sauces, vegetables and is also used in the pickling and preserving process. It’s generally used in light colored dishes because of the fantastic hue it adds to them due to its natural crimson color.
When you think of nutmeg you may think of pumpkin pie, eggnog or rice pudding, as I did. I was amazed to find nutmeg’s many applications in savory cuisines. In Indonesian cuisine, traditionally nutmeg is used in spicy soups, and gravy for meat dishes. In Indian cooking, nutmeg is used in sweet and savory dishes and sometimes is added to the common spice mixture: garam masala (a staple in my household). You can also find it in many Italian dishes, like tortellini and traditional meatloaf. In European cuisine, nutmeg and mace are used especially in potato dishes and processed meats, as well as soups, sauces and baked goods. The French don’t use it as much as they once did but it remains a key ingredient in the popular béchamel white sauce. The Dutch add nutmeg to vegetable dishes like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, and the Scots add mace and nutmeg to the savory pudding that is haggis. Nutmeg is also popular in mulled cider and wine and is common in some rum based Caribbean cocktails, as a garnish.
So there you have it: a short, not so sweet history of a time-honored spice that is all so popular this time of year. Whether you consume it in a delectable pumpkin pie, imbibe with some creamy eggnog or add a taste to your fluffy mashed potatoes maybe you’ll take an extra moment to consider the origin of nutmeg; the tropical paradise from which it grew or the delicacy it was once upon a time.
However you choose to enjoy your spices this holiday season I hope they are nourishing, warm and in good company!