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Nutmeg: A Gift from Grenada
By Kate Heyhoe
and visions of eggnog, holiday baked goods, and white cream
sauces, all sprinkled with a dash of this warmly aromatic spice,
come to mind. But to understand the true versatility of nutmeg,
ask a Grenadian.
as The Spice Island of the Caribbean, Grenada is famous for spice
production and particularly for the production of nutmeg, with the
nation producing a third of the world's supply. Nutmeg is found as
a national emblem on the flag representing Grenada around the
world, emphasizing its importance for the island. In Grenada
nutmeg is King. Visitors to the island can't help but notice its
scent on the balmy breeze and taste its rich flavor in a wide
variety of Grenadian cuisine. Here, the fruit of the nutmeg is
used to its full potential, with the yellow outer covering (called
the pericarp) popping up in delicious jams, syrups and candies,
and even in top-class liqueur.
The nutmeg tree
grows to a height of 15 to 30 feet. There are three layers that
surround the nutmeg fruit. The outer layer, known as the pericarp,
is used to make nutmeg jelly. The red membrane, which enwraps the
shiny dark nutmeg shell, is known as mace, nutmeg's twin spice,
which is eventually dried and ground, and used in a variety of
dishes. Inside this shell is a seed - the nutmeg. No part of the
nutmeg is ever wasted including the shell, which is used as flower
bed mulch and for covering garden plants.
nutmeg fruit, when mature and still attached to the branch, splits
open to expose the mace which is soft to the touch and even while
drying, retains its powerful fragrance. The fruit ripens about
five months after flowering. In the mountains, harvesting takes
place throughout the year. Nutmegs are harvested after they fall
to the ground. The mace is separated from the nutmeg, washed and
put to dry and then taken to the processing station for grading.
The nutmeg is left in its shell to air for two weeks, after which
it is cracked open and the shell removed, ready for use.
More Than Just a Spice...
Four hundred years ago, nutmeg
was the most valuable commodity in the world, owing to its potent
medicinal properties. In 16th century London, for example, its
price skyrocketed after doctors recommended it as a cure for the
plague. The Asians used the seed of the nutmeg as an aphrodisiac,
and by the 18th century, it made its way into snuff, which
gentlemen removed from their silver snuff boxes for an after
dinner snifter, while the women carried it in silver pendants
around their necks as insurance against poor health.
to the Far East, its use in China dates back to the 5th century
and was considered beneficial to the digestive system. It was one
of several aromatics used in the streets of Rome during the
coronation of Emperor Henry VI. It is now cultivated in the West
Indies, Sri Lanka and Indonesia and is currently in the British
Herbal Pharmacopoeia for rheumatism, nausea, diarrhea, flatulent
dyspepsia and dysentery.Today,
the medicinal uses of the nutmeg continue to be just as extensive
as its culinary and therapeutic applications. The seed contains
anti-fungal, anti-infectious and anti-bacterial agents as well as
a volatile and non-volatile oil. The non-volatile oil can be found
in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, skin care products, insect
repellants and aromatic candles and soap while the volatile oil is
found in many sedative and antiseptic preparations and inhalants
and chest rubs. Many arthritis sufferers use nutmeg oil and it has
been used for years in the West Indies as a treatment for malaria,
asthma and pneumonia.
History of Nutmeg in Grenada
Where did it all begin? Nutmeg
first appeared in Grenada around the early 1800s when British
spice traders brought it to the West Indies from the East Indies.
This occurred in 1840, when inexperienced East Indies sugar
planters ran into difficulties with their method of sugar
extraction, they turned for help to the West Indies where a
superior method was being used. When West Indies plantation owners
went to the East Indies to assist, the story goes that they
quietly pocketed some of the attractive smelling nutmeg seeds and
then returned to Grenada and planted them in estate house kitchen
gardens where the plants thrived.
action posed no threat to the Dutch East Indies nutmeg industry
who jealously guarded their monopoly of nutmeg by dipping seeds
for export into a lime solution to prevent germination. This
monopoly was threatened in 1769, however, when the French sent
Monsieur Poivre on a spice stealing expedition to the Dutch East
Indies. He returned to the French colony of Mauritius with several
hundred trees and thousands of seeds, but they didn't transplant
1850 a crop disaster in Indonesia prompted the commercial
production of nutmeg in Grenada. After a leisurely start, the
first 100,000 pounds were exported in 1881. By the early 1950s,
production had reached a surplus. When Hurricane Janet swept
through the island in 1955 destroying three quarters of the nutmeg
trees, this surplus proved timely; the stored nutmegs kept Grenada
on the map as a world producer.
The Global Gourmet