Old spice


Nutmeg is rather a neglected spice. Except for desultory sprinklings over custard tarts, and the faint old- fashioned odour in buttered spinach and bread sauce, it has all but vanished from the British culinary repertoire. Though we still keep jars of perfect little nutmegs along with doll-sized grates, they seldom get an airing. Fashionably expensive vanilla pods have ousted nutmeg from the pudding and cake line, while its savoury uses are limited to the old River Cafe-style Swiss chard ravioli or pumpkin soup. Poor, lonesome spice! How galling it must be to watch, from its glass prison, the absurd kitchen popularity of chillis or coriander, knowing that once it would have kicked their exotic butts all the way back to the merchants of the Far East.

Nutmeg's neglect is not at all the same as that of star anise, say - an obstreperous flavouring that has never deserved more than occasional use. Nutmeg is a spice which - here's the tragedy - has known ubiquity and lost it again. Over several centuries, culminating in the 18th, it achieved total hegemony in English cookery. It was the seasoning, permeating every dish imaginable from roast mutton and stewed pigs to pies, puddings and cordials. But then, like one of the world's great empires, it lost it all, leaving only minor, picturesque relics - egg nog, apple pie, the discarded skin on rice pudding - as reminders of its former glory.

In its heyday, the myristica fragrans - the seed of an Indonesian evergreen - was a cure-all, as well as an aromatic. Ever since it was first imported to Britain in the middle ages (along with mace, its yellowy outer coating), nutmeg was credited with marvellous properties. The herbalist Gerard claimed that, "the nutmeg is good against freckles in the face, quickneth the sight, strengthens the belly and feeble liver, taketh away the swelling in the spleen . . . breaketh wind and is good against all cold diseases in the body". All this, and it was also supposed to sweeten the breath, and induce menstruation or produce spontaneous abortion, as circumstances required.

It was for its taste, however, that the nutmeg was largely prized. The name aptly derives from the old French, nois mugue, or "musky nut"; and its muskiness was the essential addition to all kinds of dishes, whether sweet or salty. Its ambiguous aroma ideally suited a time when the demarcation between sweet and savoury was not clear-cut. Nutmeg and mace lent just the right warmth to veal and raisin pies or boiled pigeon puddings. Their heady perfume was also a natural counterpart for many rosewater-scented concoctions.

Gradually, imported nutmeg overtook native-grown saffron and mustard as the spice of choice. Medieval grocers sold it ready-ground as part of a spice mix called "powder douce", along with cloves, ginger and black pepper. By Tudor times, though, cooks wanted their nutmeg undiluted. Sometimes it was grated in acridly liberal quantities; one 17th-century cake calls for six nutmegs to only two pounds of sugar. Other times it was quartered, and added straight to the pot. The first recorded hollandaise (1651) was nutmeggy. By the 18th century, it was mixed with porridge, with anchovies, and even with beetroot pancakes. Use had turned into abuse and it was only natural that tastes would swing against it in Victorian times.

In our century, nutmeg's story has taken another twist. The myristicin it contains - a hallucinogen with nasty side-effects - has inspired its use as a recreational drug. Malcolm X got high on nutmeg in a Boston jail. And Charlie Parker, it was said, would eat whole nutmegs, as hallucinogenic snacks, with milk or cola on the side.