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Nutmeg: The forgotten spice?

Nutmeg "I spent far too much of my adolescence trying to get high on nutmeg," admits chef Nigel Slater

There are few spices more evocative of Christmas than nutmeg. But why is the ingredient relegated to the back of the cupboard for the rest of the year?

"[It] works in the background, doing magical things," says chef Nigel Slater, describing nutmeg's quality in savoury dishes.

"It's a winter spice... nutmeg to me is about warm, cosy kitchens, it's about log fires, it's about drawing the curtains, opening a book, wrapping presents."

Freshly grated into mulled wine or eggnog, the spice's rich aroma fills many kitchens in December.

Nutmeg trees produce two spices - nutmeg and mace. Both are extracted from the trees' fruits: nutmeg is a brown seed, while mace is the red membrane which grows around the shell of the seed.

Add some spice:

Gingerbread cupcakes with salted caramel icing

Spice up cupcakes with nutmeg and ginger

Add extra flavour to homemade beer mustard

Fill the room with the smell of mulled wine

Although nutmeg can be bought as both a whole and ground spice, in Radio 4's Food Programme Nigel Slater says grating the whole nut with a small grater releases a superior flavour.

The smell is "almost pine-like", he says. "It is one of the magical smells."

Whole nutmeg works particularly well grated on top of rice pudding, and it is delicious when added to a custard tart and cream desserts, says Mr Slater.

But for many people Christmas is the only time to use nutmeg in the kitchen.

Once one of the most sought after spice in the world, today nutmeg often lies sitting in cupboards, unused, for months.

"For me nutmeg is a very old fashioned spice. It's one that isn't used very much now," says Mr Slater.

Perhaps it is because the sweet, gentle tone of nutmeg is the antithesis to the fiery, pungent flavours of spices people in Britain love cooking with today such as chilli and ginger.

Chilli products for example, are in high demand, and an increasing number of British farmers now grow the crop.

Find out more:

Sheila Dillon

Listen to the Food Programme's Nutmeg: The smell of Christmas? BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 22 December at 12:32GMT

"If you think of the spices that we use now, we use them I think for excitement," argues Mr Slater.

Nutmeg is thought to have been imported into Europe during the 12th Century by Arab merchants. But by 400 years ago it had become the most valuable spice in the world.

In the 17th Century, displaying a bowl of nutmeg in your home was a sign of immense wealth, says Giles Milton, author of history books including Nathaniel's Nutmeg, an account of English adventurer Nathanial Courthope.

"Nutmeg was the ultimate luxury," says Mr Milton. "Of all the spices, nutmeg was the most elusive to find and it was also the most valuable."

But a dark history surrounds the spice.

"Hundreds maybe thousands of people died - were slaughtered - fought in battles over this spice," says Mr Milton. "And all to satisfy the tastes of the elite."

The Portuguese found the spice growing on the Banda Islands of Indonesia (Spice Islands) in 1512.

A nutty narcotic?

  • Nutmeg, produced by the tree Myristica fragrans, has a historical reputation as a psychoactive herb when consumed in high doses.
  • In the 17th Century a number of European physicians wrote about the symptoms of nutmeg poisoning.
  • Serious intoxications can occur in children when they accidentally eat too much.
  • While its hallucinogenic properties have been noted, the unpleasant taste, large doses required for effect, frequent adverse effects, and relative lack of potency limit its abuse.
  • Teenagers are one group who often test its effects out.
  • "I spent far too much of my adolescence trying to get high on nutmeg," admits Nigel Slater.

At the time, nutmeg trees grew on only six remote islands in Indonesia and the east indies.

By the early 1600s Dutch troops had control of the nutmeg trade. But in 1616 English trader Nathanial Courthope and his men took over the Island of Run, and struck a deal with native chiefs to ensure the English would keep control of the island and send nutmeg back to the UK.

Today nutmeg trees are grown much more widely. In the Caribbean, the centre of the nutmeg trade is the island of Grenada.

Most of the nutmeg growing there is exported but the spice is also much-used in Grenada in the cuisine and as a medicine.

One nutmeg stall-owner in Grenada interviewed by the Food Programme explains: "You use it on meat, you use it in soup, you use it in bread, we use it in everything.

"In the morning time you toast your bread and you put your jelly on it and you have a breakfast, a lovely breakfast."

Not just for Christmas:

Broccoli and Stilton soup

Grate nutmeg into broccoli and Stilton soup

Add a pinch to pancakes with poached eggs

Pack tonnes of flavour into pilau rice

Try creamed spinach with nutmeg and garlic

Nutmeg has been used as a medicine in some parts of the world for centuries.

In Grenada it is commonly used to treat a range of ailments such as aches and pains and arthritis.

The island's nutmeg industry was devastated in 2004 by hurricane Ivan.

Many trees on the island were flattened and it will still take several more years for new ones to reach full production (around 300lbs of nutmeg from each tree).

One silver lining however is that farmers have reported a better quality of nutmeg being produced by their post-hurricane trees.

Nigel Slater says he would love to see nutmeg regain popularity, and be added to a wider variety of dishes.

"The thing about nutmeg is that it keeps very well. Particularly as a whole spice. It's there. It's sitting in your cupboard."

"Get it out and let's grate it. Let's put it in our white sauce... it's fabulous on cauliflower... let's put it in our cheese sauces. You know, let's bring nutmeg back."

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