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Taste of Nutmeg
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Taste of Nutmeg

In the days of old the nutmeg was coveted by nations to the point of violence. There are several species of nutmeg trees, but the most widely known and harvested is Myristica Fragrans. This evergreen tree is native to Run, a tiny island in the Bandas, also called the Spice Islands in the Molucca Province of Indonesia. During the Middle Ages, Run was the exclusive source of nutmeg, and the Arabs were the sole proprietors. They already knew of its value not only for flavor, but it’s powerful healing components. So, they kept their source secret and sold nutmeg to the Venetians at a scandalous price.

In the 16th century the Portuguese conquered another small island in the Bandas but was unable to monopolize its trade. Before long the locals resisted them. Thereafter, the Portuguese offered their own valuables as trade with the Bandanese for nutmegs.

Less friendly relations ensued when the Dutch followed the Portuguese. They traded poor items for the rich spice, and then tricked the rulers (orang kaya, lit., “rich men”) into signing a treaty that gave the Dutch an “eternal” monopoly on nutmegs. The Bandanese were not so easily forced. One fateful day they summoned the Dutch General and 40 of his men for a “meeting” and then killed them.

I’ll spare most of the grueling details that ensued as the Dutch used extreme force to gain control of the spice trade. The Bandanese were massacred, the survivors enslaved. The Dutch and British fought for control. The Brits stood their ground in Run until a very famous deal was struck.

England wanted New Amsterdam, aka Manhattan, which belonged to Holland. Holland wanted all of the nutmeg trade, with their eyes fixed on Run. Thus, in the 17th century, Manhattan, NY was traded for a spice and the Dutch gained full control of Run’s fruit.

Then one sunny day in the late 19th century the English were sailing home from the Dutch East Indies and stopped in Grenada. They had on board a few nutmeg evergreens. Thus they transplanted the great nutmeg evergreens. Today Grenada is also called the Isle of Spice as one of the world’s largest exporters of nutmeg. The fruit has become so important to the nation’s economy that it’s depicted on their flag.

The nutmeg fruit is a drupe along with its sisters the coconut, peach, almond and olive, and mangoes, cherries and apricots, too. Drupes are also called “stone fruit” because at center, beyond the peel (exocarp) and the edible flesh (mesocarp) is a small stone that contains a seed. Inside the seed is the nutmeg kernel. The bright strips hugging the seed are another spice called mace. The two are called twin spices because their flavors, fragrance and chemical properties have only subtle differences.

WARNING: Pregnant or breastfeeding women SHOULD NOT exceed the small amounts of nutmeg found in food without consultation from a qualified health professional. High doses of nutmeg can cause miscarriage. The effects upon nursing babies are unclear. Nursing mothers are urged to avoid risk and consume nutmeg minimally or as recommended by a qualified health professional.

Consult with your doctor before using nutmeg. In large quantities it is highly toxic in the body. Overdose can result in vomiting, heart palpitations, hallucination, delerium and death.