Fragrant Origins - Nutmeg: the tale of Blood, Sex and Empires
To some, the scent of nutmeg conjures crisp, rural Connecticut farms, baked holiday treats, and of course the now infamous Starbuck’s PSL. But this most muskiest of spices has a torrid past of sex, drugs and bickering empires.
The word Nutmeg comes from the latin Nux, meaning Nut, and Muscus, meaning Musk - an aptly named spice, with an unforgettable scent. There is a certain depth and musky animalic intrigue that lingers below a dense coat of dry, cloying sweetness. A deeply nuanced aroma that holds the history of bloody wars, sex and luxury in its fragrant molecules.
The species Myristica fragrans, a tropical evergreen tree, is native only to one obscure chain of islands, located 250 miles off the eastern coast of Indonesia. Today we know these as the Banda Islands, or the once fabled Spice Islands.
With Nutmeg’s native habitat being so condensed, no one quite knows the origin of this unique species; some suggest ancient migrations via birds, while others claim natural evolution. Whatever the case, this once invaluable tree actually provides us with two spices — Mace and Nutmeg.
Crack open the woody flesh of a nutmeg fruit ( which some locals turn into a refreshingly fragrant juice ), and you will find a hard pit laced in veins of a blistering red membrane. This waxy lace is peeled away, dried and sold as Mace - but no relation to the tear-invoking pepper spray. The remaining seed is dried in the sun over a period of months and then sold as Nutmeg.
Many wars have been waged over the demand for this spice. However, the native people of the Banda Islands were great sea-navigators and had a thriving port of trade, long before the Western Europeans entered the stage.
It was by chance that Arabian-Persian merchants first encountered these spice islands in the 1400’s. What they found waiting for them was a treasure trove of the unknown — Nutmeg, Mace, Cloves — all things that the western world had previously never seen.
Arabian Merchants began exporting Nutmeg into Europe and it quickly surged in popularity— both for it’s status as something luxurious and exotic, and much later, as a reported cure-all for everything from gas to the bubonic plague. And nutmeg wasn’t the only spice to tout this title — modern aromatherapy bends often referred to as “Thieves” are based off remedies of this era; mainly a combination of clove, eucalyptus, lemon and rosemary, — all said to ward off the illness.
The rise of nutmeg’s popularity had paralleled the era of the New World and expanding empires, and the Dutch saw the spice trade as their next frontier. In 1512, they set sail for the Spice Islands and committed genocide against uncooperative natives, enslaving survivors, and establishing complete control on the world’s nutmeg trade.
There was one problem however, The British. They had secured one nearby island — a nearly 1 square mile piece of volcanic rock — called "Run".
Naturally, the Dutch didn’t like the British being so close to their Nutmeg monopoly. After battles waged and blood shed, a deal was struck. In 1677, the British agreed to trade the island of Run for a small dutch-owned colony in America known as Manhattan. Yes — Without nutmeg, New York City as we know it would’t be.
With the Dutch now having fully secured the Spice Islands, everything was operating smoothly for nearly 200 years. They inflated prices and set fire to any surplus supply to keep the demand high. But then entered a French horticulturist-pirate, named Pierre Poivre ( literary translated: Peter Pepper )
You see, the Dutch were so fearful of other nations attempting to transplant their nutmeg seeds, that they would pickle them in lime juice to prevent germination. However, Pierre got lucky, and was able to smuggle a few seeds to his gardens in Mauritius, where the Nutmeg trees flourished. The native Bandanese people ( still enslaved by the Dutch ), may have helped him, but history is grey here.
As new nations now entered the Nutmeg trade, the downfall of the Dutch monopoly began. More people from all classes soon could afford this spice that was once reserved for only the wealthiest of nobles. New industries and uses began to flourish - some delicious and some more questionable.
Nutmeg soon garnered the reputation of being “ the new drug”. In the 1800’s bartenders would dust nutmeg on top of drink to make patrons “ feel as if they were floating”, and in some cultures where alcohol is forbidden, women still eat nutmeg in their porridge to “make their eyes soft” before their wedding day ( but more on that in a moment ).
These hallucinogenic properties are best known in modern day prisons, where Nutmeg is banned in kitchens. In Malcom X’s autobiography, he recounts his experience: “Stirred into a glass of cold water, a penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers”
These hallucinogenic effects are thanks for a psychoactive compound known as Myristicin found in Nutmeg ( as well as parsley, dill, anise ). Plants use this as a natural insecticide, however in humans it acts as as a mood-booster, by slowing the breakdown of feel-good chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine.
Interestingly, Myristicin is also used in MMDA production — a psychedelic. Some researchers suggest that when consuming nutmeg, this compound is metabolized by the liver into MMDA.
Also known as “ The Woman’s Viagra”, nutmeg has been used by cultures across the globe to increase women’s libido. And there is some science to back up this myth— Dating back to ancient India, Ayurvedic medicine has prescribed nutmeg as an aid in boosting blood circulation to the digestive and reproductive organs —Today, we know this effect mimics a key hormone that is responsible for sex drive and good mood: Serotonin. This, compiled with Nutmeg’s stimulating aroma, may be key to the rumors of its seductive side.
Olfactively , this marvel is infrequently used at high doses in perfume, for it can easily sing loudest in any composition. However, when balanced correctly, it can give such an otherworldly texture to a formula, casting a veil of dusty antique cotton lace, over a gasp of lustrous amber silk, or a tone of gritty-red spice, powdered in a sweet-musk with strokes of fresh black soil.
Thank you nutmeg— who would have know you have such a story to tell.