Would you put that thing in your mouth? Well, I hardly think so: the nutmeg (and the red, lacy mace) is truly one of the least attractive foods of all time, and that’s before you know how it used to be harvested.
Nutmegs are native to one small archipelago, the Bandas in eastern Indonesia, and having been there myself I can say that getting anyone or anything off the Bandas and onto your dinner plate back home is one of the labours of Hercules, although Mercury would have come in a good deal handier.
But I can also tell you that when you are approaching these islands, you smell them before you see them, and the scent is nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove. And when your boat brings you in over the reef to land on Run, the small island that the English traded to the Dutch in exchange for Manhattan, you step out and it’s as if the island exists on its own plane, halfway between 1600 and the 21st Century. There’s a generator powering a ghetto blaster with music that sounds a bit like Kanye, only in Bahasa Indonesia instead of English. But there is also, outside of every tiny house, a blanket spread, on which are drying freshly-picked spices; cloves, mostly, but also cinnamon, nutmeg, and a couple of things I couldn’t quite identify.
Run is where I learned how nutmeg was harvested for centuries. The Bandas are not only home to the nutmeg fruit, something about the size and shape of a small, malformed apple or possibly a large quince with a skin problem. They are also the home of the nutmeg dove, which looks exactly like a regular dove, only an awful lot closer to the size of a bald eagle.
Perhaps I exaggerate. A large cat. Yes, this is a dove the size of a very large cat, which can unhinge its lower jaw like a snake’s, in order to swallow the nutmeg fruit whole. The pit, including the mace covering, is indigestible to the dove, and passes through.
You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?
Well, it’s a lot easier than climbing trees.
Speaking of admissions, I must admit that having possessed myself of this kernel of knowledge, I had suddenly lost all desire to find out how they harvested it nowadays, because if my stay in Indonesia taught me anything, it’s that they will do things the cheap and easy way because why wouldn’t you do it that way? And nutmeg doves are free.
The Guardian, incidentally, has done a fine writeup on the sociopolitical history of the nutmeg, and you should go read it. There may be a quiz later.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the hunt for nutmeg helped build the modern commercial world. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople (modern Istanbul), embargoing trade across the sole sliver of land through which a few merchants had evaded the Arab-Venetian spice monopoly and forcing Europeans to find new eastern trade routes. Columbus sailed the blue Atlantic looking for a passage to India; and Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, his men charging on to the shores of Kerala crying, “For Christ and spices!” The Portuguese military genius Afonso de Albuquerque annexed the Indonesian Molucca islands, of which the Bandas form part, in 1511. The fortresses he built there established and then consolidated a Portuguese monopoly over the world’s nutmeg that lasted almost a whole cushy century.
I have been in the fortresses he built there, and have snorkled through the ruins of Fort Elizabeth, which the English built to guard Run from the Dutch. The Dutch and Portugese, one island over, built a fort they called Revenge, of which little remains, but what little does remain is more than enough to chill your flesh on a day when even the trees are sweating.
I assure you, my skin starts crawling just to look at the image, even if the place has apparently been turned into a cassava farm. But where was I? Yes, going to talk about breakfast next, now that we’ve covered death, war, politics, third world poverty, and the digestive tracts of grossly swollen pigeons.
Indonesia is that kind of a place.
Oh, and the nutmeg will get you high, apparently. That explains a great deal of the local government.
One thing they do right there, having been conquered by the Dutch every few years for a couple of centuries, is pancakes. And one of the things they do with them is put a little spice in them, pretty much always nutmeg, because their tastes are subtle there and the sharper snap of cinnamon is not so much to their taste in the morning. Nutmeg is a spice that rewards cooking, richens and deepens, becoming much more interesting if it’s actually baked into something rather than sprinkled on top by a smiling barista. And one of the things it’s best in is pancakes, although it also adds a great deal to a savory stew, particularly if beer is one of the liquids in it.
Try it, you’ll like it. Trust me, I’ve spent several decades telling everyone I don’t like nutmeg, when really I just didn’t like nutmeg sitting on top of things. Nutmeg should be in things. Like pancakes.
Musical interlude via the DailyDot:
But am I going to let you settle for powdered nutmeg? No, I am not. I wouldn’t do that to you. Once you’ve had the real thing freshly ground, the stuff that comes in packages reveals itself as bearing the same relationship to the original that Nosferatu did to Ryan Reynolds after the sun came up.
You need a grater, and you can waste your time and money and skin off your knuckles playing around with several fancy items that look like they belong in a dominatrix’s toolkit, but we here at the ol’ Manolofood blog will take better care of you, and we will recommend only what we’d use ourselves, if we hadn’t spent all our money on martini olives this week.
Cuisipro Nutmeg/Cinnamon Grater (and yes, you will wash it with soap EVERY TIME if you use it for more than one kind of spice. Promise me, now.
This one is nice and practical; it knows if you only use it for nutmeg, you’re not going to wash it out every time, so it has a lid that keeps your leftovers fresh, and it’s easy to handle, so there will be very little knuckle skin mixed in with your pancakes. Yay!
My personal favorite, because it’s just so cute and the perfect size for a singleton, is the Gra-Mini mini grater. It’s also around five dollars, so it’s perfect for a stocking stuffer they’ll think is useless and end up using every single day. Major smug points for you.
I happened to pick one of these up at the hardware store while buying a box of rat poison (what can I say, it was a bad breakup) and the Italian man behind the counter nearly infarcted from laughter. With tears in his eyes he picked up the grater and mimed freshening a dish of rat poison with some parmesan. Oh god, that moment really lightened his life, I can tell you.
There are some words of power in the Productosphere, and “Peugeot” is one of those words. Therefor, we present the Peugeot PM19488 Amboine Nutmeg Grinder which is extravagant, tasteful, gloriously indestructable, and perfect for rich fussbudgets who don’t like to actually touch their food with anything but the inside of their digestive tract. You know the type. Excited about molecular gastronomy so they can eat steak foam and save on the calories. But they are generally important and must be placated with extravagant gifts, like ancient gods. So, here. It’ll probably be the most useful item in their kitchen and they will never touch it, because they eat out every night anyway.
But when I win the lottery, I’m buying one. And then renting a cleaner, to wash it out for me all the damn time (I’m two-timing nutmeg with cinnamon; yes, I am THAT GIRL).
This is the kind you don’t want. Seriously, 7.5 inches? Wasn’t that thing on an episode of Law and Order, Special Victims Unit?
Anyway, you’ll be a Special Victim if you try to use this with your bare hands.
I have a confession to make. I’m only including this one because of its name: The Nut Twister. Yes, I am twelve.
But at less than half the price, it’s not a bad riff on the Peugeot, even if that chrome case will not be as durable as the wooden one (trust me on this!).
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is about 1437 words more than I ever thought I would write about nutmeg. Pay heed!
Oh, they do also make nutmeg jam, out of the fruit itself. You don’t want it; it’s like apple butter, only mealier.