• Nick Dent

The Life of Spice

Updated: Apr 11, 2019

How much would you pay for the perfectly flavoured food? Well once, the entirety of Manhattan was traded for some nutmeg trees.

You may have heard that Manhattan—then New Amsterdam, now New York (so good they renamed it twice)—was traded to the English, but what did The Netherlands get in return? A tiny island, about two miles long and less than a mile wide, called Run. Have you heard of it? It's certainly no New York nowadays, but this tiny island has had a comparable impact on world history for one main reason: nutmeg.

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans): stem with fruit and nut and floral segments. Coloured lithograph by C. Rosenberg, c. 1850, after himself

Nutmeg is produced by several species of the genus Myristica, with true nutmeg being produced by Myristica fragrans. These are evergreen trees, which grow generally 15m tall, but have been found up to 30m. They are from a family of early-evolving angiosperms. The family has representatives in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific Islands. Despite having 21 genera with over 500 species, they are still sometimes called ‘The Nutmeg Family’. Nutmeg historically is a hugely important crop and wherever it appears it tends to have things named after it. Indeed, the presence of Nutmeg, as well as native cloves, lead the Maluku Islands where they grow to be historically known as ‘The Spice Islands’.

Nutmeg (you might have some in your kitchen right now) is an unassuming spice with a slightly warm, sweet taste, used in recipes as varied as mulled wine to tortellini. A spice is a substance made from plants used to give flavour to food; they can be made from seeds (nutmeg, or mustard), root (ginger), bark (cinnamon) or fruit (cayenne pepper) but crucially not the leaves, flowers or stems, which are used to produce herbs. Some plants such as coriander can produce both herbs and spice. Nutmeg is usually ground or grated into food, personally I put a little bit in my mashed potato. The fruit where we get nutmeg also provides another spice, mace, which is made from the aril, or seed covering. This spice is unrelated to mace spray. While pepper spray does use capsaicin, which gives peppers their heat, mace spray is instead named after the medieval weapon; maces.

It seems odd to think that plants would go to such effort to make the elaborate blends of chemicals that make spices so appealing: what’s in it for them? Plants, like all life, are in a constant battle to not die and hopefully reproduce. These chemicals are often to stop animals eating them; for example, the tobacco plant produces nicotine as a poison to stop their leaves being eaten by insects. Interestingly, some plants have evolved an ingenious way to spread their seeds. They make delicious parts which are offered up to be eaten: fruit. Animals eat the fruit, walk off, and deposit the seeds a good distance away, with free fertiliser attached. Using this method, tomatoes managed to colonise a new volcanic island near Iceland. A researcher had eaten tomatoes, swallowing many seeds, and then, when they were caught short on the island, left some seeds behind. Some plants have evolved a way to make chemicals that only stop certain animals eating them, while other animals, more suitable for the plant’s needs, can eat them unaffected. A great example of this is capsaicin, that chemical which makes peppers hot.

Mammals are often put off by the unpleasant burning sensation when eating the fruit.

A robin on a branch of holly. Colour lithograph after H. Weir, 1858.

Interestingly, birds cannot taste capsaicin so they eat the fruit and spread the seeds over a much larger distance, which is more useful for the plant. Holly pulls a similar trick, its berries if eaten won’t taste a bit hot, they will, however, make me or you very unwell. Birds on the other hand, can eat the berries to no ill effect. Nutmeg appears to produce chemicals which might put off certain animals eating it, in large doses it is a hallucinogen, and if enough is ingested it can be deadly. This may be enough to have stopped an unwanted local fauna from eating the fruit it has spent so much energy producing.

So why was the Kingdom of the Netherlands so eager to get their hands on nutmeg? Herbs and spices were valuable for many reasons, one important function was to mask the flavour of perishing foods. Indeed, the first recorded example of pesto, made from basil, is in the ship logs of Christopher Columbus as he set off from Genoa. In a time before easy refrigeration and an understanding of microbiology, food, especially meat, was much more likely to go off. Recipes were designed to mask this unwanted flavour. Nutmeg was prized for its ability to not only cover this taste but to also actually preserve meats. For seafaring folk, this would have been a godsend as they were somewhat tied to their food supply.

Spices have been traded for perhaps the last 4000 years, and it believed that nutmeg was first introduced to Europe about 2600 years ago. For nearly two thousand years the origin of nutmeg was kept a secret by eastern traders, who understandably wanted to control their supply and thus their income. Always looking for a bargain, or for a chance for more wealth and power, many European monarchs sent out parties to try and discover and bring back the sources of spices to Europe. If this was impractical, then just conquering the relevant island and driving away, killing or enslaving the local population was deemed an acceptable second choice. This lead Elizabeth I to fund an expedition to try and form a monopoly on spices. This expedition eventually became the East India Company, which in 1603 found Run Island, the smallest island in the Banda Islands chain where nutmeg grew. This was enormous in its implications, not least for the local population, whose numbers in the island chain dropped after colonisation from around 14,000 to about 1,000. What we were seeing were the very beginnings of the British Empire. The colonising of a Spice Island was a catalyst for more colonisation, with the ability to better preserve their food on long journeys, and a steady income from the sale of cloves, nutmeg and mace. The British Empire could grow larger and faster, conquering and colonising more land until at its peak it covered 24% of the worlds surface, shaping the future of literally billions of people. The powerful and often feared East India Company would grow to have an income of £1,359,675,850 in today’s money, and at one point commanded an army twice the size of Britain itself. The Maluku islands were the scene of many colonialist conflicts, with several super-powers vying for their produce. It wasn’t until 1949 that they were free from European rule, and are now part of Indonesia. Their value had plummeted due to colonial powers, in part because Britain managed to transplant and grow Nutmeg in Sri Lanka and one of its Caribbean colonies, Granada. Granada now produces 20-40% of the world's nutmeg crop, leading to its nickname ‘The Spice Island’.

A physician and a surgeon pointing to herbs in a herb garden; indicating medicine and surgery for the poor. Engraving, 1671.

Herbs and spices, being rare and exotic, were often rumoured to have medicinal or magical properties. Nutmeg was said to be able to cure the plague, although modern studies have found no medicinal use for nutmeg. There is evidence that some spices can have an antimicrobial effect, which would explain their prevalence in cuisine from warm regions (like Mexico and India), where infectious diseases are more common and food is quicker to perish. Discoveries like this have led some people to suggest it’s not just an environmental concern, but actually in our economic interests to protect rare plant species, as the chemicals they produce could benefit humanity and help create new medicines.

Nick Dent - 2019

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