Christmas, to me, comes perfumed with nutmeg: a cosy, homely scent – “one of the magical smells”, as Nigel Slater puts it – which is why I was so taken aback by Sathnam Sanghera’s account of what the culinary historian Michael Krondl describes as “the horrendous, horrendous tale” of the spice’s bloody history.
Sanghera touches upon nutmeg in his recent book Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain because this unassuming brown seed was as much a pawn in the colonial game as the precious stones of the Indian subcontinent. Once upon a time, the world’s entire crop came from a handful of islands 2,000km east of Java, which made them the focus of intense European interest, given the value of those seeds appreciated by around 32,000 per cent en route to market in the West.
Naturally, the English were involved – indeed, some historians claim that when the population of the tiny island of Run, one of the Banda Islands in Indonesia, pledged their allegiance to the English East India Company in 1616, in the futile hope it would protect them from the brutality of the Dutch, it was the beginning of the largest empire the world has ever seen. Islanders presented the company with a nutmeg seedling – a powerful statement of trust given the local monopoly. Needless to say, the company abused this, carelessly swapping 15,000 lives in a treaty with the Netherlands for, among other things, Manhattan, barely half a century later. Run’s new masters went on to murder or deport more than 90 per cent of the population, leaving the rest as slaves.
The Dutch controlled the crop, ensuring exports were soaked in limewater to render them infertile, and summarily executing anyone who threatened their exclusivity, until the 1760s when a French horticultural pirate aptly named Pierre Poivre managed to smuggle out enough for Paris to establish a plantation on Mauritius. The British, who returned to the islands in the late 18th century, then took the seeds as far as the Caribbean, where Grenada is now the world’s second-largest nutmeg producer.
Like many spices, nutmeg was prized as much for being a medicine as a seasoning: the 12th-century polymath Hildegard of Bingen believed it had “a great warmth and a good mixture in its powers. When a human being eats nutmeg it opens his heart, and his sense is pure, and it puts him in a good state of mind.” It was held to protect against plague, and Samuel Pepys reports taking a mixture of honey and nutmeg for a cold, “which I found did do me much good”.
Though there’s no evidence for this claim, what is certainly true is that, thanks to the amphetamine-like compounds metabolised from its volatile oils, when taken in sufficient quantity nutmeg can have hallucinogenic effects similar to LSD. Malcolm X recalled in his memoirs that, while serving time in the late 1940s, prior to his conversion to Islam, “I first got high… on nutmeg. My cellmate… bought from kitchen worker inmates penny matchboxes full of stolen nutmeg… stirred into a glass of cold water [they] had the kick of three or four reefers.”
[See also: What does James Bond eat for lunch?]
The writer William S Burroughs took it only once, finding the results “vaguely similar to marijuana with side-effects of headache and nausea” but the jazz legend Charlie Parker is said to have made nutmeg and milk his regular tipple – even Slater admits to experimenting as a teenager. A whole new generation discovered it more recently via the TikTok “nutmeg challenge”, where last year participants filmed themselves swallowing the spice by the spoonful in search of a high – but more often ended up feeling sick. A few were admitted to hospital. An article in the British Medical Journal describes the practice as “low cost: high risk”, noting two deaths attributed to nutmeg in the past century alone.
None of which should put you off grating more judicious amounts of nutmeg into your bread sauce or on top of your trifle – after all, a little intoxication is surely all part of the festive magic.
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special