Nuts about Nutmegs

Mace and Nutmeg

On the edge of the Pacific Ocean and north of Australia lies the small group of islands now known as the Molluccas. Formally called the Spice Islands, the Molluccas have given the world, mace, nutmeg and cloves. The spice nutmeg is best know for its ability to alter the flavour of food, some use it for its mind-altering properties, but less well know is its role in altering the course of history.

As early as the first century the Romans burnt nutmeg as a form of incense. For years the Chinese kept their European customers ignorant of the origins of mace, nutmeg and cloves. Arabian and Middle Eastern traders made generous profits from spice trafficking, as caravans crossed from China, via India to Europe. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonise the Spice Islands, which they held until 1602 when they fell into Dutch hands. Even then confusion still surrounded the production of these spices. According to legend, officials in Amsterdam sent orders that in light of the considerably greater value of mace compared with nutmeg, the region was to fell its nutmeg trees and replant with mace. In fact the spices nutmeg and mace are both derived from the same species of evergreen tropical tree. Great efforts were made to maintain the exorbitant prices that spices commanded in the markets of Europe. When in 1770 supply overtook demand, a mysterious fire in Amsterdam ensured that more than a year’s supply of mace and nutmeg went up in a puff of fragrant smoke. With financial returns of more than three thousand percent, The Dutch did all in their power to maintain their monopoly of supplies. They outlawed the export of plants and packed nutmegs in lime, as this was thought to prevent them from germinating.  They need not have bothered, however, since like many tropical trees, the nutmeg’s large seeds are required to sustain its seedlings as they struggle to survive in the gloomy under-forest, such seeds tend to remain viable only for a few days. Dormancy is not a feasible strategy, as such large seeds are unlikely to last long without being eaten on the floor of a tropical forest.

Both the British and French were envious of Dutch control over the spice-trade, and so just before Christmas in 1616 Nathaniel Courthope a Lieutenant in the East India Company with the crews of the Swan and the Defence, claimed the last tiny nutmeg-producing island that was still independent. Although just two miles long by half a mile wide Run was one of the most profitable of the Spice Islands. For the next five years Lieutenant Courthope and his band of mariners managed to fend off the overwhelming might of the Dutch East India Company. A classic example of heroic British madness. Eventually the Dutch Governor General Jan Coen was able to orchestrate Courthope’s murder and Britain ceded Run to Holland. For many years the British unsuccessfully petitioned for its return. In 1667 they finally gave up their claim on Run on condition that in return the Dutch gave up their claims on their American colony of Manhattan island, which has been snatched by the English in 1664. Thus, New York was procured for a few hallucinogenic nuts.

The French assault on the Dutch monopoly was rather more subtle employing espionage rather than military aggression. Explorer Pierre Poive was successful in smuggling a few nutmeg trees out of the islands. It is said that his task was made easier because Dutch efforts to regulate which islands were permitted to cultivate nutmeg were thwarted by pigeons that consistently ate the seeds and then deposited them on other islands. However, it is difficult to imagine that the pigeons had an easy passage. Not until some ten or so years later did Poive’s trees start to flower, it was only then that the French were to discover that nutmegs have separate sexed trees. Nutmegs are still usually grown from seeds rather than cuttings, with the sexes being produced in roughly equal numbers. Standard practice is to fell male trees as they reach maturity to allow more space for the developing females and to give a sex ratio of one male to every ten females, which is sufficient to ensure that adequate pollination is achieved. Alternatively it is possible to dispense with male trees altogether and replace them with a few male branches grafted onto the females. It is now possible to determine the sex of seedlings before they flower, as they produce different colour reactions with ammonium molydbate. Politically correct or not, this allows the male trees to be identified and destroyed in infancy.

The fruit of the nutmeg tree resembles an apricot in both colour and form. As it ripens it splits open to reveals a brilliant scarlet latticework, which surrounds the central seed. This bright red seed coat is removed and dried to become mace, as it does so, it takes on the familiar sandy brown colour. The seeds are also dried before the nutmeg is removed from its inner shell. Additionally, the fleshy apricot like outer part of the fruit can also be utilised in the manufacture nutmeg jam.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries slaves on board the ships bringing nutmegs to Europe discovered that if they ate part of the cargo it give them a feeling of euphoria in spite of their dreadful predicament. Nutmegs were ascribed many different medical properties, from curing plague to piles. Charles II was prescribed nutmeg following a haemorrhage, the fact that he died within a few days, did little to tarnish its reputation. Nutmegs were used to terminate unwanted pregnancies, (presumably not King Charles’ problem) the unfortunate women who used such methods were known throughout London as ‘nutmeg ladies’.  It is now known that nutmegs contain a compound called myristicin that is responsible for a range of hallucinatory and mind altering effects. Although it is sometime said that if you were to consume an entire nutmeg it would prove fatal, the medical literature contains several accounts of sad individuals who have swallowed considerably more. They report symptoms lasting up to a week, that include severe vomiting, seeing flashing lights, hearing loud music and having confused thinking. Strangely enough nutmeg abuse does not appear to be addictive!



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