From a culinary perspective, the nutmeg plant is nothing if not a winning combination. The flesh of its fruit is often pickled or candied to form an easily-accessible snack when a pick-me-up is in want. A leathery, web-like covering cages in the seed – an alluring shade of crimson when the fruit is ripe, this web weaves like threads of satin, revealing little of its core but slits of deep brown. When peeled away and left to dry, however, this covering becomes what is known as mace – yet another culinary product birthed of the nutmeg plant. That’s not quite the end of it, however. Nutmeg as most people know it is found in the seed kernel within the core of the fruit. It is sold either whole or ground, though in its latter form, its distinctive aroma is rather less significantly preserved. Its whole form, however, is said to be tolerant of indefinite storage in airtight containers, and can be grated over dishes as needed.
The history of nutmeg is both long and bloody. With countless wars waged on its account, the spice has seen a heyday of glorified adulation from East to West. Europeans particularly revered its thick and spicy fragrance, often times paying up to the price of three sheep, or one cow for the equivalent of a single pound. Indeed, so coveted was the prime position as alpha of the nutmeg trade, that the Dutch in particular waged bloody battles for control of the islands of Banda where the plant originated.
Early trades of nutmeg and mace to Europe were propagated by Arabian merchants, who sold the spice at exorbitant prices to Venetians. Having realised the profitable nature of the nutmeg spice trade, these merchants kept the source to themselves, essentially securing their roles as the then, only traders of the spice. Yet this soon came to an end with Alfonso de Albuquerque’s capture of Malacca for Portugal. Thus, the Portuguese became the first Westerners to discover the source of nutmeg and mace, though this was cut short by the invasion of the Dutch. In a painful battle of bloodshed, and some would say injustice, the Dutch massacred and enslaved the inhabitants of the Banda islands, effectively culling the resistance and gaining control of the nutmeg trade in one fell swoop. They guarded this profitable source of income jealously and zealously, taking measures to ensure that nutmeg would never grow on any other locale. Prices were kept inordinately high through the burning of fully-loaded nutmeg warehouses in Amsterdam. Frequent expeditions masterminded, in which the use of war vessels were authorised in successful attempts to extirpate the growth of the plant in other regions. In doing so, the Dutch maintained their vice-like grip of the trade.
Eventually, the control of the islands came temporarily to the British, the efforts of which included the propagation of the plant to various other parts of the world: Zanzibar, Grenada, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, and of course, Malaysia’s very own Penang island. Coupled with Frenchman Pierre Poivre’s daring transportation of the plant to the Mauritius islands where the plant flourished, these efforts saw to the end of the Dutch monopoly.
Medieval usage of the nutmeg spice was certainly not merely limited to culinary purposes, though it certainly cannot be denied that both nutmeg and mace were prized for their flavours and aromas – one sweeter, and the other more delicate. Indeed, St. Theodore the Studite, a Byzantinian Greek monk who was the abbot of Constantinople’s Stoudios monastery is said to have allowed the monks under his guide sprinkles of nutmeg atop their pease pudding whenever it was served. Emperor Henry the VI was reported to have had the streets of Rome fumigated with nutmeg fragrance upon his coronation. The spice was also said to possess magical properties, a point very deliberately noted in the queer usage demonstrated by medieval society. Nutmeg oil was carried around by men, with which to anoint their genitals at appropriate hours to guarantee days of virility. They were used as amulets and charms to offset misfortunes both medical and accidental; from boils to rheumatism to bad luck. Tucked underneath the left arm, it was said to draw admirers, though one might certainly choose to question the authenticity of such a claim.
Such strange usage notwithstanding, however, the nutmeg spice was also certainly revered as a curative of sorts for illnesses and diseases. Elizabethans believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague, and as such used it liberally. It was also frequently used as a home remedy for abortions, making it particularly popular in the eyes of women and physicians. There is certainly some truth to be had from these claims, however; modern-day research has shown about as much – case in point, a study that shows nutmeg’s potential in beneficiating the body’s battle against the Streptococcus mutans bacterium.
Today, nutmeg is still used as it was used traditionally: as a home remedy to battle flatulence, diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea, gastroenteritis, indigestion, anxiety and depression, impotence, and even liver disease. It is said to clear up cold congestions and is incorporated into a great many cough syrups. The essential oil drawn from its seed is also used in the traditional treatment of toothaches, while some swear by it as a detoxifier that drains the toxins from the body. It is widely regarded as a brain-booster that aids in the increase of blood circulation, thereby allowing for a higher level of concentration in daily life. In a nutshell, no pun intended, the nutmeg spice offers a plethora of simple home remedies. It certainly becomes a matter of no questionable wonder, then, that super marts the world over have taken to labelling it a ‘superspice’, one placed in health aisles alongside other superfoods of its calibre.
Like so many other foods that have proven beneficial to the human body, however, the nutmeg spice is deadly in significant amounts. When ingested excessively, it is said to induce a state of psychosis and trigger hallucinations. It is possible to suffer nutmeg intoxication, as many have proven by trial – it is said that a Czech physiologist, Jan Evangelista Purkinje once ingested three ground nutmegs with a glass of wine. He suffered headaches, nausea, and hallucinations coupled with a sense of euphoria that lasted a few days. It is then safe to say that nutmeg in great quantities do more harm than good, and can lead to convulsions, palpitations, pain, vomiting, and dehydration. In serious cases of nutmeg poisoning, one might even find oneself buried six feet under – certainly an undesirable conclusion.
In the distinct practice of the culinary arts, however, nutmeg has certainly found its home amongst peers. Commonly found in a variety of delectably-sweet goodies, the spice is particularly pleasantly paired with pies, puddings, custards, cookies and other pastries as well as sweet sauces, fruit, and raisins. It lends its warm and nutty fragrance to cereals, and is even used in the production of jam. Naturally versatile, it is also utilised in the making of cheese sauces and soups as well as gravy, and can commonly be found gracing the likes of tomatoes, spinach, broccoli and pumpkin among other vegetables and meats. It is a notable ingredient in seasonal eggnog, and plays an important role in the aroma profiles of coffees and teas, where its flavour is frequently enjoyed.
The nutmeg spice is certainly one with varied spectrums of effects. On one hand, it offers healing, as good for the mind and body as one might imagine of a superfood. On the other, it builds toxicity, essentially harming the mind and body. Where, then, does one look – to the benefits, or to the opposite end? This becomes the point at which we discuss a happy balance. Like any other food, too much of it will prove harmful. Exercise restraint when laying on the spice – not only will this balance out the benefits of the nutmeg plant, it will balance out the flavour of your food. Because let’s face it – the best flavours in life are those perfectly paired with others to create blissful revelations in the science of taste.