Nutmeg, like cinnamon, is a spice that many people associate with hot drinks and desserts. But its history isn’t so sweet. The colonial policies of Europe’s erstwhile empires were driven in part by the profits that could be derived from the spice trade—and European colonizers did not tend to treat indigenous populations well. As a result, the history of many spices is marred by war and subjugation; however, nutmeg’s history is considered to be one of the more tragic tales.
Though nutmeg would become incredibly popular amongst the European nobility during the Middle Ages, the spice was far less well known in the ancient empires. First century Roman author and naturalist Pliny mentioned a tree whose nuts have two flavours, which is believed to be a reference to nutmeg (nutmeg comes from the seed of the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans, while another spice, mace, is made from the membranes surrounding the seed), and nutmeg may have been used to flavour beverages. Nutmeg became better known in the sixth century, when Arab traders brought the spice to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Over the next 600 years, nutmeg became a favourite of European elites—Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI even had nutmeg spread throughout the streets of Rome before his coronation in the twelfth century.
Why was nutmeg valued so highly by Europeans? During the Middle Ages, nutmeg was believed to have the power to ward off mild illnesses, like colds, as well as devastating diseases such as bubonic plague. The spice was also popular as an additive to food and drink at medieval banquets. Grinding nutmeg into alcoholic drinks was fashionable among wealthy European gentlemen. Some gentlemen even carried their own nutmeg grinders, in order to conspicuously improve upon meals served by their hosts.
Nutmeg wasn’t only popular for medicinal and culinary purposes—the spice was also a recreational drug! Thanks to a psychoactive chemical, myristicin (a relative of amphetamine), nutmeg can produce hallucinogenic effects if taken in large quantities. The myristicin in nutmeg acts on the human body in a similar way as mescaline, the psychoactive compound in peyote, does. Myristicin is present in smaller amounts in parsley, dill, and star anise.
Disclaimer: Vanillablossom does not condone the use of nutmeg for hallucinogenic purposes. Consuming too much nutmeg leads to dizziness and nausea. The small amounts used in cooking are perfectly safe.
Until the sixteenth century, Europe’s only source of nutmeg was Arab traders, who protected their monopoly over the nutmeg trade by spinning tall tales about the spice’s source. In fact, Myristica fragrans is indigenous only to the tiny Banda Islands (also called the “Spice Islands”), which are an island group in the Maluku Islands—an Indonesian archipelago. Secrecy paid off for Middle Eastern and Indian spice traders, who became wealthy buying nutmeg from the Bandanese and selling it to traders who would carry it from the shores of the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean world. Then, 1511, the Portuguese found the Maluku Islands. Though the Portuguese force was too small to exert total control (attempts over the next century to build a fort were thwarted by the Bandanese), they were able to purchase nutmeg (as well as mace and cloves) at its source, breaking the Arab monopoly.
This is where nutmeg’s story becomes tragic.
The Portuguese were not the only Europeans who sought to profit from Indonesia’s spices. The Dutch soon followed—and they were unwilling to simply buy spices alongside the Arab, Indian, and Portuguese traders. Unlike the Portuguese before them, the Dutch succeeded in building a fort on the largest of the Banda Islands. Then, over the first two decades of the seventeenth century, the Dutch exerted more and more control over the archipelago, pressuring the Bandanese into signing a treaty that enshrined a Dutch East Indies Company monopoly over the spice trade, and seizing one of two British-controlled nutmeg-producing islands, slaughtering the British defenders.
In 1621, the Dutch decided to solidify physical control over the Spice Islands, massacring possibly as many as 14,000 Bandanese and enslaving the survivors on nutmeg plantations, alongside labourers brought from other Indonesian islands. Any plantations outside of the Bandas were destroyed. In 1667, the Dutch received the last Bandanese island from the British in exchange for Manhattan (yes, that one), which, at the time, was merely a colony called New Amsterdam. This completed the Dutch monopoly over nutmeg, which was brutally enforced. To ensure that the trade remained profitable, the Dutch kept prices artificially high, even burning warehouses of nutmeg in Amsterdam to reduce the amount of nutmeg available in Europe (they did the same thing with cinnamon).
Dutch Indonesia became French—and was invaded by the British—during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, when Holland became part of Napoleon’s empire. A treaty returned the Spice Islands to the Dutch, but not before the British transplanted seedlings of nutmeg trees to areas under their control: Singapore, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Bencoolen (southwest Sumatra), and Penang (in Malaysia). The spice then spread to Zanzibar, East Africa, and Grenada. Decades prior, French traders had smuggled seedlings from the Bandas to their colony of Mauritius. The Dutch monopoly was broken for good.
Vanillablossom ground nutmeg is sourced from Indonesia. Today, Indonesia and Grenada are the world’s primary producers of nutmeg. Grenada even showcases a nutmeg fruit on the national flag.
Like cinnamon, nutmeg is used in both sweet and savoury dishes. In baked goods, nutmeg pairs well with cinnamon, cloves, anise, cardamom, and ginger. In savoury dishes, nutmeg is complemented by cumin, black pepper, coriander, sage, thyme, chili pepper, mustard seed, and turmeric. Nutmeg is one of the spices in garam marsala, and is essential to the popular “pumpkin spice” flavour.
To make a pumpkin spice latte that rivals Starbucks, try Vanillablossom nutmeg in this pumpkin spice latte recipe! (There’s less coffee in this drink than you might think, but you didn’t think the Starbucks drink was primarily coffee, either, did you?)
1 cup milk or non-dairy alternative
2–3 tbsp pumpkin puree
½ tsp cinnamon (heaping)
¼ tsp ginger
1 large pinch nutmeg
1 large pinch allspice
1 large pinch cloves
2 tbsp vanilla extract
1 shot espresso (or ¼ – ½ cup strong brewed coffee)
Sugar or honey to taste
Warm pumpkin puree and spices in a small saucepan. Stir in milk and vanilla. Process mixture in a blender (carefully, mixture will be hot!) until frothy. Prepare coffee in a mug and add the frothed milk and pumpkin mixture. Sweeten to taste. Add the garnishes of your choice.