Global Glossary: Nutmeg

Pungent, powerful, nutmeg is one of the world’s most sought-after spices but did you realise how important a role it played in shaping American history?

First let’s understand a little about where this magical fruit comes from.
The nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) first grew on the Banda Islands, (now part of Indonesia). The English gave the plant the name nutmeg by mixing the Latin word nux, meaning nut, and muscat, meaning musky.

Nutmeg trees thrive on the sloping hills that rise from the coast to 500 meters above sea level can grow up to 60 feet tall. A nutmeg tree can bear fruit for up to 90 years but remain barren for the first seven years.

The tree produces both nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the seed from the tree and mace is the red skin that covers the seed. The seed shell is dried for up to two months. Then it is shelled and the egg-shaped nutmeat is ground to produce nutmeg.

Today we use nutmeg as a spice for curries, marinades and, at Christmas (in the UK at least), for flavoring mince pies. But nutmeg has long been celebrated throughout history. Back in the first century A.D., the prolific Roman writer Pliny spoke of a tree bearing nuts with two flavors. In Indian Vedic writings nutmeg was recommended for headaches, fever, and bad breath. By the 14th century when the Portuguese took control of the maritime spice trade, half a kilogram of nutmeg cost as much as three sheep.

The Dutch later replaced Portugal as kings of the high seas and so became the main traders of this in-demand spice. At the time the source of nutmeg centered around a tiny Banda island called Run. In 1616, the English seized control of Run, led by Nathaniel Courthope, a lieutenant of the East India Company. Courthope held out against Dutch attacks for five years, before being murdered in 1620.

But in the peace deal that followed his death, the English agreed to relinquish Run in exchange for another Dutch colony that the Dutch East India company considered less valuable: the island we now know as Manhattan.

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