The hallucinatory history of nutmeg

Nutmeg has been used as a spice, and occasionally an intoxicant, for centuries

N is for… Nutmeg. The word ‘nutmeg’ is an evocative one. It is satisfyingly onomatopoeic, immediately summoning to mind an image of the wrinkly little seeds, dark and closed and full of musky, musty flavour. It is also exotic and historical – it conjures up a world of imperialism and trade, of sweet-smelling markets and billowing sails, the clink of gold coins and the calls of hawkers. And the history of the nutmeg is as varied as the breezes that ruffle the golden sands of the Spice Islands in Indonesia.

The nutmeg we know is the seed of the fruit of the Myristica fragrans tree, which is native to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas, Indonesia, and also produces mace. Thanks to the abundance ofnutmeg, mace and cloves these islands became known as the Spice Islands.

Nutmeg was consumed in Europe during the middle ages; it is mentioned as being sprinkled on pease pudding as early as the 8th century. It was sold by Arab sailors – including the fictional Sinbad – to Venetians, and thus found its way into Europe. But the Arabs were careful not to divulge the source of their valuable bounty, and the location of the Spice Islands remained arcane for centuries. It wasn’t until the 16th century that they were finally discovered by the West, and became a hub of trade and commerce. Nutmeg was thought to cure the plague that was sweeping Europe; consequently, its prices skyrocketed. In 1510, making a packing list for a trip to Pavia, Leonardo da Vinci jotted down: ‘Inkhorn. Penknife. Get hold of a skull. Nutmeg.’

The Spice Islands quickly became a locus for colonialism, with the Portuguese, Dutch and British all fighting over them. Although the Dutch East India company – after slaughtering some 90% of the natives – emerged victorious, Britain retained a foothold in the region with the island of Rhun. King James I became sovereign of Rhun, and it was the first British colony in the world. War still raged, however, and the Anglo-Dutch conflict did not come to an end until 1667, with the signing of the Treaty of Breda. The little island of Rhun was handed over to the Dutch by the British, in return for a lick of land off the east coast of America: Manhattan.

Throughout the world, nutmeg is used in both sweet and savoury dishes. In its native Indonesia it is grated into oxtail stews or boiled in syrup to make sweets. In England we use it to season both creamy custard and earthy brassicas. It is in Indian garam masala and Irish mulled cider, Scottish haggis and Canadian eggnog, Italian tortellini and American pumpkin pie.

In the Kerala Malabar area of India (try saying those words without a flash-vision of heat, noise and colour), nutmeg is used as a digestive medicine and a sleeping aid as part of the ayurvedic tradition. In early-modern Europe it was used as a nervous ailment cure as early as the 7thcentury. During the 19th century, nutmeg’s alleged aborfacient (miscarriage-inducing) properties meant it was ingested in large amounts by women desperately seeking to rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy. Despite scant medical evidence to support the claims of aborfacience, it is still recommended that pregnant women avoid nutmeg.

Nutmeg can also be deadly to dogs: it contains myristicin, which is toxic to canines – and, sometimes, humans. There are three recorded cases of death by myristicin poisoning, which causes convulsions and hallucinations. In smaller doses, myristicin is a psychoactive substance and has been used as an intoxicant for centuries. It is often grated into joints and smoked by prisoners, sailors and students. Albert Hoffman, who discovered LSD, was a fan and Malcolm X took it while in jail. It doesn’t sound much fun though: the required dose may cause brief warmth in the limbs and a sense of mild euphoria, but it also creates nausea, paranoia, dehydration and headaches. The effects of a ‘nutmeg high’ have been compared with a virulent flu. Best stick to grating a little into your cabbage.


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