By Maryann Readal
Nutmeg is that spice we use in pumpkin and apple pie and sprinkle on our lattes and eggnog during the holidays. It is also the spice that we use in béchamel and alfredo sauces and is an ingredient in garam masala and curry. Its medicinal uses include treatment for diarrhea and gas and a topical treatment for pain. In the mid 1300’s it was thought to combat the Black Death. Eaten in very large doses, nutmeg can cause severe hallucinations which have an unpleasant after effect compared to a two-day hangover. Not to worry, culinary doses of nutmeg are very far from the doses needed to achieve unpleasant results.
The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for November is nutmeg. Nutmeg is made from the seed of the nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans. The outer lace-like covering of the nutmeg seed is dried and ground and that spice is mace. The tree is a native of the Banda Islands in Indonesia. For more information, a beautiful screensaver, and recipes using nutmeg, go to The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month webpage.
The spice trade began in the Middle East more than 4,000 years ago, when Chinese, Persian, Malay, and Arab traders brought spices to Europe. Nutmeg was prized by the European aristocracy who used it for seasoning, medicine, and to preserve meat. Ladies wore nutmeg sachets around their necks and men put it into their snuff. Everyone used it to combat the plague.
European traders began to search for the source of nutmeg and other valuable spices and thus began an era of world exploration. Christopher Columbus was on a search for the origin of spices when he accidentally found America instead.
Now, here is the rest of the story. In 1667, the Dutch traded Manhattan to the British for a small Pacific island named Run. Run was one of the Banda Islands in the Spice Islands archipelago and was where the nutmeg trees grew. Why did the Dutch do this? They wanted to control the nutmeg trade. At that time, nutmeg was worth more than gold and whoever had the Banda Islands, the only place where it grew, had a monopoly on the spice. The Dutch wanted total control of the lucrative nutmeg trade and they were willing to give up New Amsterdam (Manhattan), their backwater town in the New World for it. Local Bandanese call this trade the “Manhattan Transfer.” The years of war between the Dutch and the English over control of the Banda Islands were called the Nutmeg Wars. These wars were devastating and cruel for the inhabitants of the islands.
As a result of the “Manhattan Transfer,” the Dutch got what they wanted. But the story did not have a happy ending for them. In 1770, A Frenchman Pierre Poivre (Peter Pepper), smuggled nutmeg trees out of the Banda Islands and successfully transplanted them in the French colony of Mauritius off the coast of East Africa, creating competition for the nutmeg trade. In 1778, a volcanic eruption caused a tsunami that wiped out many of the nutmeg groves in the Banda Islands. In 1809, the English reclaimed the Banda Islands but in 1817 returned them to the Dutch AFTER transplanting hundreds of nutmeg seedlings to their own colonies. The Dutch nutmeg monopoly was over! And some say it was the end of the Dutch as a power.
Banda nutmeg is still considered the finest nutmeg in the world, although it is grown in other places. The United States is the biggest importer of spices and New York celebrity chefs prize using their own spice mixes in their restaurants, the haunts of New York well-to-do. An ironic twist to the story.
And that is the rest of the fascinating history of nutmeg.
Maryann Readal is the Secretary of the Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX.
Herb Society of America Medical Disclaimer … It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any medical or health treatment.