The History Of Nutmeg

Nutmeg is a spice that has long been prized for its medicinal properties. The history of nutmeg goes back to the 1st Century as evidenced in writings by Pliny, the Roman writer. In Indian Vedic writings it is recommended for headaches, fever, and bad breath. Arabian writing praises as good for curing stomach ailments and as an aphrodisiac.

Nutmeg on a Measuring Spoon

Nutmeg is actually the seed from an evergreen tree. The scientific name for the most common type is Myristica fragrans. This plant produces both nutmeg and mace. The tree is indigenous to Australasia and tropical regions of Southeast Asia. There are a couple of species of trees used to produce nutmeg, the Fragrant Nutmeg is the most common, the Papuan Nutmeg and Bombay Nutmeg are less common.

Prized in medieval times for its uses in cuisine, nutmeg was brought to Europe in the middle ages by the Arabs through the Venetians. The spice was very popular and very expensive. It was even rumored to ward off the plague and cause self-abortions. While it might not ward off the plague, it is an abortifacient. Pregnant women should probably avoid nutmeg. Nutmeg in high doses can be toxic.

Nutmeg is native to the Banda islands of Indonesia. When the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope in Africa in the late 1400s, they took control of the spice trade because they could transport nutmeg far more cheaply in the hold of a ship than it could be transported by caravan. Soon the Dutch became the predominant traders of this precious spice. At the time, the only source of nutmeg was on Run Island. Because the British also wanted in on the lucrative trade there were many struggles between the British and the Dutch over control of the Island.

During the Napoleonic wars, the English finally gained control of Run Island and proceeded to plant nutmeg trees in Grenada and Zanzibar. This ensured that the British would not lose complete control of the Nutmeg trade should they ever decide to give up the island again. The expansion of nutmeg production also had the effect of making nutmeg accessible to more people at lower prices.

Today, nutmeg is produced in many places including the India, Malaysia, various Caribbean islands, New Guinea, and Sri Lanka. About 10,000 tons a year is produced and mainly used in the US, Japan, Europe and India.

While nutmeg is quite affordable today, this was not always the case. In fact, throughout history nutmeg has been quite expensive. A few hundred years ago, a small bag of nutmeg would have brought enough money for the holder to be financially independent for the rest of his life!

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