Edible histories: nutmeg

Categories: History of food

From the crop of a tiny archipelago in south-east Asia, to a driver of global trade and warfare, Mark Riddaway on the surprisingly important history of nutmeg

Words: Mark Riddaway

Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century German abbess, was one of Europe’s intellectual giants: a theologian and mystic, a writer of music and drama, a pioneer of natural sciences. She was also partial to a spice known to her as ‘nux muscata’—musk-scented nut. Nutmeg, she wrote, “will calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make your mind cheerful. It purifies your senses and diminishes all harmful humours in you. It gives good liquid to your blood, and makes you strong.” Her suggestion? Bake small cakes laced with nutmeg and “eat them often”—the kind of medical advice we’d all be happy to follow.

In itself, it’s not particularly surprising that a German nun would eat spicy cakes. Or that nutmeg, together with other spices, would be burned in the streets of Rome for several days before the 1191 coronation of Emperor Henry VI so that his nostrils wouldn’t be offended by the smell of plebs. What is bewildering is that the nutmeg in question had travelled further than even Hildegard’s giant brain could comprehend, from a part of the world that neither abbess nor emperor had any idea existed.

Nutmeg is the woody kernel found within the yellow-green fruit of the Myristica fragrans tree. (Another spice, mace, is produced by drying the red, web-like aril that surrounds the kernel.) This small, hardy evergreen tree is indigenous to the Moluccas—a remote archipelago, bisected by the Equator, located between Sulawesi and Papua New Guinea, around 13,000km from Rome or the Rhineland. Even by the standards of other spices, many of which had been imported to Europe from Asia and north Africa since classical times, this was the very back end of beyond.

El Dorado of aromatics
The Moluccas were the El Dorado of aromatics: the world’s sole source of cloves, nutmeg, mace and sandalwood. But even here, nutmeg cultivation was far from widespread: for thousands of years, almost every nutmeg consumed anywhere in the world was grown on the Banda Islands, a collection of 10 tiny volcanic islands totalling less than 50 square kilometres, cloaked by vast reaches of open ocean. Search for Banda on a map app and you’ll find yourself clicking the magnify button over and over again before a few tiny green dots appear on a screen full of blue.

Through a happy accident of nature, the people of Banda found themselves in control of a global monopoly. The 16th century Portuguese historian João de Barros described the natives as being “much addicted to trade”. Theirs was a communal society with “neither king nor lord”, based entirely upon the harvesting of nutmeg: “This tree is in such abundance that the land is full of it, without its being planted by any one, for the earth yields it without culture. The forests which produce it belong to no one by inheritance, but to the people in common.”

At some indeterminate point in the distant past, consignments of nutmeg began showing up in India, a country with deep ties to Indonesia. The spice’s initial appeal seems to have lain in its aromatic qualities. The Charaka Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit medical book compiled no later than the second century, and possibly much earlier, contained the suggestion that nutmeg and cloves should be “kept in the mouth … to promote fragrance of breath”. Other early Indian texts mention it being used to fumigate rooms, cover the smell of sweat and produce an oil “used by kings before bathing”.

The spice was also valued as a medicine, mainly as a remedy against digestive problems, but for a wide variety of other conditions, too. Garcia de Orta, a Portuguese-Jewish scientist, writing in 1563, explained that “many Indian physicians make a sudorific with cloves, nutmeg, mace, and long black pepper, and they say it draws out the Castilian itch”—he failed to expand on the nature of the ‘Castilian itch’, but given Portugal’s low regard for Spain, we can probably guess. He also suggested that “Arabs cure dysenteric illnesses with opium rectified with nutmeg”, although whether a dusting of nutmeg is bringing much to that particular pharmaceutical blend is dubious.

Fleshy cardamom
Arabs were central to the Moluccan spice trade. By the end of the 7th century, Arab merchants had found their way to Indonesia, and although they never made it as far as the Moluccas (the first leg of the spice route was the preserve of local sailors), they came to dominate the onward transfer of spices from the port cities of Java and the Malay peninsular, to China (where nutmeg was known as ‘fleshy cardamom’), India, Arabia, north Africa and Byzantium. By the 10th century, in the Byzantine city of Constantinople—more than 11,000km away from its source in Banda—nutmeg was being used by the followers of St Theodore the Studite to jazz up their pease pudding on days when eating meat was forbidden.

Since leaving Banda months or even years earlier, the nutmeg that found its way to Hildegard’s cakes and Henry VI’s braziers, would have passed through multiple hands in various entrepôt ports and towns—Malacca, Calcutta, Aden, Basra, Baghdad—in a complex series of transactions that mock the idea that globalised trade was a western invention. In Constantinople or Alexandria, they would have been picked up by Venetian traders, who monopolised the European leg of the spice routes.

In Europe, nutmeg was enjoyed for its flavour as well as its medicinal qualities. Geoffrey Chaucer described nutmeg being “putte in ale” and implied that this would improve stale beer. The author of the Anonimo Toscano, an anonymous Tuscan cookbook from the late-14th or early-15th century, used nutmeg to flavour a fennel sauce and a hare stew, and mixed it with pork mince and egg to make a stuffing for roast peacock. Le Managier de Paris, a French collection from 1393, included the spice in a remarkable dish called ‘inverted eel’.

The profits garnered by Venice from its grip on the European spice trade were vast. But then Portuguese ships found their way around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean, and the Italian city-state’s primacy began to wobble like an overloaded gondola.

Mysterious spice islands
Rumours of mysterious spice islands at the far edges of the world had long gripped the western imagination, lent credence by the writings of explorers such as Marco Polo and Niccolò de’ Conti. Ludovico di Varthema may even have made it to the Moluccas around 1505—he claimed to have visited an island with nothing but nutmeg trees, populated by people “so stupid, that if they wished to do evil they would not know how to accomplish it”, although there are good reasons to doubt his trustworthiness. Then, in August 1511, the Portuguese general Afonso de Albuquerque captured the great Malaysian port city of Malacca; a couple of months later, three of his ships, guided by local pilots, set off for the spice islands. After a traumatic journey, with one of the ships being sunk along the way, the Portuguese became the first westerners to buy nutmeg directly from the Banda Islands.

Portugal’s success sparked Spain into action. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set off from Seville with five ships in search of a westward route to the spice islands, via the Americas. Staggeringly, two of his ships, Trinidad and Victoria, made it to the Moluccas, although Magellan was speared to death in the Philippines along the way. In 1522, the Victoria made it home, loaded with cloves and nutmeg, having circumnavigated the globe.

This kicked off a diplomatic squabble. Portugal and Spain had signed a treaty that divided the New World between them; now, both nations claimed that the Moluccas fell on their side of the dividing line, and the Spanish in particular presented some pretty dodgy dossiers in support of their assertion. In 1529, in exchange for 350,000 ducats of Portuguese gold, Spain chucked in the towel, but Portugal’s celebrations were short-lived. Two rising maritime powers, the Netherlands and England, paid no attention to this carve-up and set out to grab a piece.

The English, whose sailing skills and courage weren’t yet matched by navigational acumen, made several abortive attempts to reach the Moluccas, including a mission in 1553 to find a route to Indonesia via the North Pole, with predictably chilly results. The Dutch proved more capable. Jacob van Heemskerck dropped anchor at Neira in March 1599 and spent a month there setting up nutmeg deals with the Bandanese—no easy task, he claimed. “A man needs seven eyes,” he wrote, “if he does not want to be cheated.”

Flogging their wares
Soon afterwards, the English East India Company arrived. Initially, both countries tried to strike trading partnerships with the Bandanese, but the archipelago’s various elders, while willing to sign treaties promising exclusive rights to their spices, would then blithely carry on flogging their wares to whoever showed up, just as they had for hundreds of years.

In 1609, the Dutch decided to take Neira by force, followed by the rest of the islands. Or all but one: in 1616, to much Dutch annoyance, the English took over and fortified Run, the most isolated of the Banda Islands. After three years of fighting, the Dutch saw them off, but England’s claim to Run would have lasting consequences. In the Treaty of Breda, signed in April 1667, the English formally renounced their claim, and in return were given the right to retain a far less valuable island in the New World that had been captured from the Dutch a few years earlier: Manhattan. Holland got the nutmeg. England got New York. It was a victory for the Dutch that would, in retrospect, seem just a tiny bit pyrrhic.

With the Banda Islands tamed (and a genocide conducted against their indigenous people, who were replaced by slaves), the Netherlands had complete control of the world’s supply of nutmeg. Bubonic plague was rampant in Europe, and nutmeg was sold by apothecaries as a defence against its spread, creating dramatic price surges. These were kept bubbling by the Dutch, who carefully limited supply. In 1735, the Dutch East India Company burned 1,250,000 pounds of nutmeg in its Amsterdam warehouses in an attempt to counter falling prices.

The value of nutmeg would eventually fall as faith in the spice’s medicinal powers faded. Then, after the British briefly captured the Banda Islands during the Napoleonic wars, the Dutch monopoly was broken. Before returning the islands to the Dutch, the English made off with a load of nutmeg trees and successfully planted them in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Sumatra and Singapore. In the 1840s, they took the spice to several Caribbean islands, including Grenada, where it thrived—Grenada remains the world’s second biggest producer after Indonesia.

War and genocide
Such abundance turned nutmeg from expensive luxury to everyday flavouring—in Mrs Beeton’s book, for example, there’s barely a fish dish or dessert that doesn’t include a scraping of the spice. Nowadays, where once it shaped nations and sparked war and genocide, we associate nutmeg most closely with egg custards and potted brown shrimp. It’s progress of sorts.