ORLEANS: He's of the colour of the nutmeg.
--Shakespeare, in King Henry V, III, 7

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(Myristica fragrans)

Oh, nutmeg--that odd little spice that most Americans associate with egg nog, snowfall, cold winds, and holiday cheer. Yet it actually began life on the tiny, volcanic Banda islands of equatorial Eastern Indonesia--thriving as the fruit of huge evergreen trees, towering 30-60 feet in the air. The trees are distinctly either male or female--and when they're planted to become a domestic crop, one male tree absolutely guarantees that its entire harem of 12 female trees will bear fruit.

The whole fruit itself is interesting--like a peach, with skin around succulent white flesh, but tart. To eat the flesh, native Moluccans sugar it, leave it in the sun to ferment, then eat it in small doses, aware of its notorious narcotic effect.

It's the pit, or stone, though, that contains the brown nutmeg kernel. And it's also the pit that itself is covered by a beautiful, red tendril jelly spice called mace. All 3 substances--flesh, nut, and jelly--are narcotics, if taken in large enough doses...and potentially lethal. Which accounts for their ancient reputation as aphrodisiacs and intoxicants

As for the aroma of this fruit, it is out of this world: it's said that the scent of blossoms in bloom is so heady that birds in the air become intoxicated just by flying by.

Ancient Indian and Chinese societies called them by the Sanskrit names of jati-kosa (mace) and jati-phala (nutmeg), and wrote them up in their medicinal treatises as stimulants, carminatives, and aphrodisiacs. And members of the royal courts were said to carry small ivory boxes filled with powdered nutmeg so they could sprinkle it in their wine to intensify the hallucinogenic effect

Although nutmeg did not reach the Mediterranean world--Biblical, Greek, or Roman--during ancient times, it did reach Constantinople by 9 AD, thanks to Arab traders. We know that because St. Theodore the Studite let his monks sprinkle it on their pease pudding on non-meat days.

It was in the 12th century, though--when Crusaders found a whole new world of taste in the Holy Land--that nutmeg became all the rage. In 1393, a pound of nutmeg was worth 7 fat oxen in Germany--but that price dropped in the 15th century when Europeans established trade directly with growers in Indonesia--first the Portuguese with Vasco da Gama and Alfonso de Albuquerque, then Ferdinand Magellan for Charles V of Spain, then Sir Francis Drake on the Golden Hind for England, and Cornelis Van Houtman for the Dutch.

By the 18th century, with the Dutch East India Company monopoly firmly in place, the frustrated British and French smuggled nutmeg seedlings out of the Banda islands and transplanted them in their other colonial possessions--the French to Mauritius (where they ultimately failed) and the British to Grenada in the West Indies, where they flourish to this day.

Ingloriously, American profiteers took advantage of American gullibility and created a "Nutmeg scam"--that is, Connecticut businessmen manufactured wooden carved nutmegs and sold them as the real thing. That's how Connecticut became known as "The Nutmeg State," or so the story goes.

The uses of nutmeg vary around the world: Americans put it in hot dogs, in sausages, and in processed luncheon meats; Scots, in haggis. In England, Chaucer's Sir Thopas and Shakespeare's Falstaff drank their ale sprinkled with nutmeg, and according to an 18th century recipe, a good Stilton cheese was not complete without a mace-based liquor flavoring. The Dutch and Scandanavians like it with vegetables, including mashed potatoes and spinach, and even with pineapple. The French add it to béchamel sauce. Italians like it in Mortadella and with spinach. And Middle Easterners like it with mutton.