A Little Nutmeg With Your Junket Or Pear?
Nutmeg has traditionally been associated with puddings in English food for hundreds of years, so it’s not surprising to see it turning up in a traditional rhyme. You’ll find the history of the nursery rhyme, together with a very considered and in-depth discussion of its possible derivation and meaning, in the article by “Up In Vermont”, in his Poem Shape website.
When my sister suggested some time back that I could write something on herbs and spices for the “What We Ate” blog, I panicked slightly. ’Cos what herbs and spices did we eat, in New Zealand in the post-war years? Very few! She’s ten years younger than me, so she doesn’t remember the nineteen-fifties. But I remember them only too well.
Three herbs and five spices very occasionally made their appearance, in minute quantities, on our dinner table. The herbs were parsley, chives and mint. The spices were ground white pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.
Nutmeg can be first, since I’ve already mentioned Mum using it on junket, in the previous article, “Junket or Curds and Whey; With the Grubby Tale of Little Miss Muffet”.
Let It Be Nutmeg
Nutmeg and cloves were the only whole spices that Mum ever used. She always had a nutmeg, or usually a piece of nutmeg, parsimoniously preserved to the last crumb. It would be carefully grated, on the smallest section of her ageing three-cornered, upright tin grater, onto the aforesaid junket, or sometimes bread-and-butter custard. It might occasionally have got onto a baked rice pudding instead of cinnamon, but I don’t recall that she used it for anything else. Which is why one nutmeg lasted a long time in our house. As a consequence, sixty-odd years on I still feel slightly guilty when I grate a goodly amount of the spice into a curry!
I’ll give you a handful of recipes and then I’ll tell you a little about the tragic history of the European competition for nutmeg.
This is pretty much verbatim Mum’s version of bread-and-butter custard, that she often made for the family through the 1950s and well into the 1960s. It didn’t always have the sultanas (she never did it with currants), and I prefer it without them:
Bread And Butter Pudding
(from the section “Milk Puddings and Custards”)
Two thin slices bread and butter, one tablespoon sugar, one pint milk, two eggs, one tablespoon currants or sultanas, grated nutmeg or cinnamon.
Cut the buttered bread into squares and put in a greased piedish. Sprinkle with sugar and currants. Beat the eggs well, add the milk and pour over. Grate nutmeg over top, and bake in a slow oven till set - 30 to 45 minutes. In an Electric Cooker bake at 425° [F], top off, bottom low 10 minutes, then off.
(Green and Gold Cookery Book: Containing Many Good and Proved Recipes. 15th ed. (rev.), Adelaide, R.M. Osborne, [1949?])
That’s as exciting as it got. Many similar recipes were published for the busy and provident housewife in the years before and after the Second World War: nutmeg was one of the most commonly-used spices for puddings.
Naturally English settlers took their recipes and their spices with them wherever they went, and so nutmeg pops up quite early in American recipes, too, as does the ubiquitous apple, the commonest fruit in the English culinary tradition.
There are countless recipes for apples with nutmeg. Here’s an American one for turnovers (not “dumplings”) from 1914:
Baked Apple Dumplings
Take rich pie crust, roll thin as for pie and cut into rounds as large as a tea plate.
Pare and slice fine, one small apple for each dumpling.
Lay the apple on the crust, sprinkle on a tiny bit of sugar and nutmeg, turn edges of crust over the apple and press together.
Bake in a hot oven for twenty minutes. Serve hot with cold sauce.
(Lydia Maria Gurney. The Things Mother Used To Make: A Collection of Old Time Recipes, Some Nearly One Hundred Years Old and Never Published Before. New York, Frank A. Arnold, 1914)
This method of making apple “dumplings” as a dessert dish, actually versions of turnovers in which the apples may be chopped or left whole, recurs in American cookery books of this period: we find it again in “French Baked Apple Dumplings”, from 365 Foreign Dishes: A Foreign Dish for Every Day in the Year (Philadelphia, G.W. Jacobs & Co., ).
If you find quinces irresistible and fancy trying them with nutmeg or its sister spice, mace, you might like to have a go at this; also a contemporary American recipe. The entry is under “Quinces”; I’ve called it “Quince Pudding”, the term which the author uses in her description:
The quince tree is the clown of the orchard, growing twisted and writhing, as though hating a straight line. Notwithstanding, its fruit, and the uses thereof, set the hall mark of housewifery. Especially in the matter of jelly-making and marmalade.
Further a quince pudding is in the nature of an experience—so few have ever heard of it, so much fewer made or tasted it.
The making requires very ripe quinces—begin by scrubbing them clean of fuzz, then set them in a deep pan, cover, after adding a tablespoonful of water, and bake slowly until very soft. Scrape out the pulp, throw away cores and skin.
To a pint of pulp take four eggs, beat the yolks light with three cups of sugar and a cup of creamed butter, add the quince pulp, a little mace broken small or grated nutmeg, then half a cup of cream, and the egg-whites beaten stiff. Bake in a deep pan, and serve hot with hard or wine sauce.
(Martha McCulloch-Williams. Dishes & Beverages of the Old South. New York, McBride Nast & Company, 1913)
The knowledgeable may discern a certain resemblance to the ancient English recipe “Chardquynce” (various spellings). Like nutmeg, quince is a very old culinary ingredient in the English tradition.
Rather More Savoury
In very early English recipes nutmeg and other sweet spices were used with meat or in other savoury dishes, as they still are in many other cuisines today. But nutmeg only subsisted in a few scattered savoury dishes in the Empire on which the sun never set. You sometimes see it in traditional recipes for making sausages. Here’s a cheap do-it-yourself Australian alternative for the provident housewife of the late 19th century:
3 Cold Potatoes—1/2d. 1/4 lb. Cold Meat—1d.
Nutmeg, Pepper, and Salt; 1 Egg; Bread Crumbs; Hot Fat—1 1/2d.
Total Cost—3d. Time—5 Minutes.
Mash up the potatoes, and mince the meat; mix together, season nicely, and mix into a paste with half the egg. Roll into sausages, egg and bread crumb, and fry in hot fat. Dish in a pyramid, and garnish with fried parsley.
(Philip E. Muskett and Mrs H. Wicken. The Art of Living in Australia, by Philip E. Muskett; Together With Three Hundred Australian Cookery Recipes and Accessory Kitchen Information by Mrs. H. Wicken. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, )
Later Australian cooks would call these rissoles, not sausages. There is a very similar recipe called “Rissoles” in the Green and Gold Cookery Book, 15th ed. (rev.), circa 1949.
Savoury Again: Nutmeg With Vegetable
If nutmeg crops up with a vegetable in earlier recipes from the British tradition it’s usually with spinach or, in the Antipodes, silverbeet. It’s good with either the tops or the stalks of the latter. I’ve given my recipe for “Delicate Creamed Silverbeet Stalks” in “Killing Vegetables:Silverbeet”. http://katywiddopsblog.blogspot.com/2018/06/
Later on we discovered nutmeg’s also lovely with pumpkin. These days there are lots of recipes for pumpkin soup. I’ve had it with cinnamon, but this New Zealand version from 1980 with nutmeg is more unusual:
500 g peeled pumpkin; 1 medium-sized onion;
600 ml chicken stock; 1/2 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg;
1 tablespoon butter; salt and pepper to taste;
Boil the peeled, chopped pumpkin and the sliced onion together in a minimum of water until tender.
Put through a blender or fine sieve.
Return to saucepan and add the butter, seasoning [including nutmeg] and stock. Reheat.
The soup may be thickened with a little cornflour mixed with water.
Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley. –Serves 4-6.
(Mary Browne, Helen Leach & Nancy Tichborne. The Cook's Garden: For Cooks Who Garden and Gardeners Who Cook. Wellington, [N.Z.], A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1980)
Foreign and Savoury: Over the Channel
The Europeans went on using the old spice in savoury dishes more than the British did.
This is an Italian dish: a slightly rewritten version of an Elizabeth David recipe. I sometimes do a version using Philadelphia Lite cream cheese and skipping the butter. You can also make it without the Parmesan, which is blander, but very nice. Watch the nutmeg; you don’t want it to overpower the dish.
Pasta con la Ricotta (Pasta with Ricotta)
300 g pasta; 175 g ricotta cheese;
60 g grated Parmesan; good pinch grated nutmeg;
freshly ground black pepper; 15 g butter;
Optional: pinch of salt
1. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the packet. Drain well.
2. Mix the cream cheese by hand or in a blender until smooth.
3. Add the grated Parmesan and season with a salt (if desired), nutmeg and finely ground black pepper.
4. Put the cooked and drained pasta in a warmed serving dish and stir the cheese mixture into it. Add the butter and stir well.
5. Let the cheese melt a little, if necessary putting the dish into a warm oven for a couple of minutes.
(Elizabeth David. Italian Food. 2nd ed. (revised), London, Macdonald for the Cookery Book Club, 1966)
This next is also an Italian recipe. I’ve done it with a New Zealand red instead of Barolo; it would also be good with an Australian Shiraz. It would be an ideal dish for the slow cooker or crock-pot. I’d advise skipping the pork fat out of respect for your arteries. Use some olive oil instead.
Manzo Stufato al Barolo (Beef in Barolo Wine)
2 - 2 1/2 lbs lean beef [1 kg]; 3/4 pint Barolo [450 ml/2 cups];
1 bay leaf; 1 clove garlic; grated nutmeg;
1 medium onion; 4 tablespoons fresh pork fat;
2 tablespoons butter
Cut meat into 6 large pieces. Put into a bowl with bay leaf, garlic, a little salt, pinch of pepper and pinch of grated nutmeg. Add wine, stir and leave in a cool place, covered, for at least 8 hrs, or overnight, turning the meat occasionally.
Dice onion and pork fat. Heat fat and butter in large pan, and when hot sauté onion gently till soft but not brown.
Take meat from marinade, drain thoroughly and dry. Add meat to pan and brown over a moderate heat. Strain the marinade and pour over the meat. Check seasoning, cover pan and cook slowly for 2 hrs, or till meat is very tender. –Serves 6.
(Ada Boni. Italian Regional Cooking. New York, Dutton, 1969)
A few more recipes later; but first, some of the sad history of nutmeg for you:
With another hat on, I have written a lot about the history of the European discovery of nutmeg and the other spices of the East, in “From Machu Picchu to Darkest Africa at RGSSA”, my blog about the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia’s collection of books of travel and discovery, which includes some important works from the 16th and 17th centuries: http://rgssamachupicchu.blogspot.com/
Nutmegs and mace both come from the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans). Nutmeg is the inner nut and mace is the dried membrane which surrounds it, within the outer shell. Originally nutmeg trees grew only in the tiny Banda Islands within the Moluccas (modern Maluku in Indonesia), in particular on little Run Island or Pulau Run ("Poolaroone" in early English texts). From these small scattered islands, cloves, nutmeg and mace were traded all over the world centuries before Europeans reached the East Indies.
Spices were worth a huge fortune in Europe from the Middle Ages right through to the 17th century. They were used not only to flavour food—rich Mediaeval households had their own “spicer” in the kitchen—but also in medicines. The sort of person who kept a spicer in those days would be the equivalent of the owner of a Beverly Hills mansion today. Initially the spices were traded via India and then by devious routes, often overland, to the Middle East and thence Europe, especially Venice.
The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India marked the beginning of European expansionism in the East. Once the Dutchman, Linschoten, had stolen the guides to the sea routes into the East Indies, the Portuguese “rutters” (the modern word, if we used it, would be “routers”,) the floodgates were open.
Here is Linschoten's description of nutmeg and mace:
And this shows the ripening nutmeg fruit split open to show the mace (or “flowers”), exactly as he describes it: “redde, as Scarlet, which is a verie faire sight to behold”:
After Linschoten, European explorers and traders (the two categories being indistinguishable at the time) soon began to head East in quest of the immense fortunes that spices would bring them. Some overloaded their ships to such an extent, not only stuffing the hold with spices, but also piling the deck high with bags and barrels of them, that the vessels foundered and sank on the way home.
The first part of the 17th century in the East Indies was characterised by vicious battles and inhumane repression, centred round the clove islands, especially Ambon (“Amboyna”) and the nutmeg islands, the Bandas. The Portuguese, established in what is now Goa on the west coast of India and making fortunes from pepper and cinnamon in particular, had a toehold in the spice islands, but the Dutch, having formed the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), drove them out by 1612. The English, with their East India Company, also swiftly headed for the treasures of cloves, nutmeg and mace. The local inhabitants would suffer for their greed.
In 1619 the VOC appointed Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a man with a genius for organisation, as Governor-General. He attacked the city of Jayakarta in Java, burned it to the ground, expelled its population, and renamed it Batavia (modern Jakarta), establishing it as the VOC’s headquarters in the East. Coen initiated a brutal and repressive régime, driving out, starving or slaughtering almost the entire population of the Banda Islands, in a push to establish Dutch plantations of cloves and nutmegs, and gain a commercial monopoly.
The Dutch East India Company and the East India Company fought over the Banda Islands throughout the first two decades of the 17th century. A Dutch captain, Verhoeff, had built a fort on the island of Banda Neira and forced the Bandanese to agree to a treaty, but it was almost immediately broken. The Dutch did not pay well, the English were also pushing for trade and offering higher payments, and in any case the Bandanese were traditionally a fiercely independent people, unwilling to knuckle under to any outside force.
Meanwhile the English had built fortified trading posts on little Run ("Poolaroone," in the early texts, for Pulau Run) and on Ai, but these were under intermittent Dutch attack. For four years Run, taken for the English by Nathaniel Courthope (or “Courthop”, etc.) was under siege by the Dutch, and in 1620, after his death in a Dutch attack, the English left Run.
In 1621 Coen enforced a Dutch monopoly over the Banda Islands’ nutmegs & mace. The Bandanese were forced at gunpoint to sign a treaty that was impossible to keep. Alleged violations of the treaty led to a punitive massacre by the Dutch, as Coen had intended. At Coen’s orders the Bandanese were well-nigh annihilated. The native population had been about 13,000 or 14,000. Only around 1,000 were left. The Dutch brought in slaves, convicts and indentured labourers to work the nutmeg plantations. Surviving Bandanese were sent to Batavia to work as slaves. About 500 Bandanese were later returned to the islands because of their much-needed expertise in nutmeg cultivation.
Perks for the Nutmeg Farmers
Coen divided the productive land of approximately half a million nutmeg trees into sixty-eight 1.2-hectare “perken,” land parcels which were assigned to Dutch planters (perkeniers). 34 were on the island of Lontor (Lonthoir, or Banda Besar), 31 on Pulau Ai and 3 on Banda Neira. The VOC paid the growers 1/122nd of the Dutch market price for nutmeg—though it still gave them substantial wealth.
The Fate of Little Run
Later in the century, when the First Anglo-Dutch War was ended by the Treaty of Westminster in 1654, the island of Run should have been returned to England. Attempts to get the Dutch to return it failed. In 1665 all the English traders were expelled from the little island. The VOC exterminated the island's nutmeg trees as part of their effort to keep the nutmeg monopoly.
Some accounts claim that, in a strange twist of fate, in 1667 under the Treaty of Breda the English traded their rights to Run for Manhattan Island.
Nutmeg and the other spices of the East Indies made the Dutch East India Company and the merchants and sea captains associated with it unimaginably rich. But this wealth came at an immense and disgusting cost in human lives and happiness. Maybe we need to remember this occasionally as we buy a little packet of nutmegs at the supermarket for a ludicrously low price.
Read more about the race for nutmeg and other spices at:
“Discovering Asia: The Stolen East Indian ‘Rutters’: How the Dutch Broke the Portuguese Trade Monopoly”:
“Discovering Asia: The Dutch Race to the Spice Islands”:
“Discovering Asia: The East Indies Opened Up To Colonial Expansion”:
“Discovering Asia: East Indies - Companies and Conflict”:
Flourishing in the East, But Spreading Westward
Two charming contemporary illustrations from opposite sides of the globe show us that the strangeness of the spice plant Myristica fragrans remained a source of interest to Europeans into the first decades of the 19th century. In spite of battles and commercial piracy nutmeg was still flourishing in the East Indies, as we can see from the delightful illustration from the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, now in the National Museum of Singapore. The collection consists of 477 watercolours of plants and animals of Malacca and Singapore by unknown Chinese artists that were commissioned between 1819 and 1823 by William Farquhar (1774-1839).
Monopolies in horticultural produce are difficult to maintain, and so it proved with nutmeg, mace and cloves from the Banda Islands. Already in the early 19th century nutmeg trees were raised in the West Indies, as illustrated in Flore pittoresque et médicale des Antilles, by Descourtilz, père et fils:
And in 1861 Mrs Beeton notes: “NUTMEG.—This is a native of the Moluccas, and was long kept from being spread in other places by the monopolizing spirit of the Dutch, who endeavoured to keep it wholly to themselves by eradicating it from every other island. … The plant, through the enterprise of the British, has now found its way into Penang and Bencooleu, where it flourishes and produces well. It has also been tried to be naturalized in the West Indies, and it bears fruit all the year round.”
Today Indonesia has a world market share of 75% of the nutmeg trade, but Grenada, in the West Indies, not the East, has 20% (Wikipedia). Nutmeg is so important a crop there that it features on the national flag of Grenada. That’s it, on the left of the flag:
On a more cheerful note, here are a few more recipes. The first is from Grenada; the source gives it with a recipe for jerk spiced pork (very hot) but you could just serve it with grilled or barbecued pork chops.
Sweet Potato Salad
4 sweet potatoes, halved; 4 thyme sprigs;
1/4 red onion, chopped; 1 large tomato, chopped;
small bunch of coriander, roughly chopped; 1 lime;
small bunch of parsley, roughly chopped;
nutmeg, grated to taste; salt & freshly ground black pepper.
The peeled sweet potatoes may be baked in foil in the oven with sprigs of thyme, or just boiled, steamed, or microwaved.
To make the salad, remove the potatoes from the foil and discard the thyme. Roughly chop up the potatoes and add good pinch of salt and pepper. Stir in the chopped onion, tomato and herbs and squeeze in the lime. Add a good grating of nutmeg.
Serve with pork chops, and a wedge of lime on each plate. –Serves 4
(“Jerk Spiced Pork with Sweet Potato Salad”, www.channel4.com/spice trip)
Silver Nutmeg and Golden Pear
I haven’t forgotten about the pears! Many spices go well with them; I find that using just one tends to enhance the flavour of the pear better than using several. But in this adaptation of a Mediaeval recipe, nutmeg is used along with several other spices, as it was back then:
Chardwardon with St. Swithin's Creme
8-10 firm, ripe pears; 1 lemon, room temperature;
3/4 cup sugar; 1/4 tsp. cinnamon; 1/4 tsp. nutmeg;
3/4 tsp. ginger; 1 cup water; 1/8 tsp. salt;
2 cups whipping cream; 10 yellow dandelion flowers;
black bread; sharp cheddar cheese, diced
Core and dice 8-10 pears. Some people only quarter them the long way, core and peel them, and briefly cook them so the pear retains it shape. My wife and I prefer to cook them right down to pear chutney. Add pears, water, salt, sugar and spices to a pot and slowly simmer down to sauce.
Halve the lemon, squeeze the juice into the pot and put the lemon rind aside. Whip the cream until it peaks.
In each of four bowls, put one slice of black bread and a handful of chunks of cheese. Dish the pear sauce over the cheese and top with whipped cream.
Grate lemon peel onto the whipped cream and serve immediately.
By Dagonell; Dagonell notes: Traditionally, this dish should be served on St. Swithin's Day, July 15th. –Lemon peel on whipped cream? Yes. It's divine the first hour, merely exquisite the second, and must be pitched afterward. If you actually do serve this dish on St. Swithin’s Day, it's traditionally served with a sprinkle of dandelion petals.
“Wardon” or “warden” is an old word for pear, and the “chard” was originally French, char de, “flesh of”. You could translate the word “chardwardon” as “pear purée”; but there is considerable controversy over what consistency the dish and its sister dish, Chardquynce, actually had, some maintaining that it should be relatively sloppy, as it is here, others that the water should be drained from the cooked fruit and it should be cooked down to a stiffish paste.
Here’s an authentic old version:
To mak chard wardene tak wardens and bak them in an oven then tak them out and paire them and grind them in a mortair and streyne them smothe throwghe a streyner then put them in an erthene pot and put ther to sugur till they be douced as ye think best and put ther to pouder of notmeggs guinger and granes and let the pouder be farcede put ther to powder of sanders tille it be coloured and stirr it with a pot stik and set yt on a soft fyere and let it boile till yt be stiff as leche lombard and ye put amydon or rise it is bettere and when it is cold lay it fair abrod in the coffyn and let it stond ij dais and ye liste strawe senymom upon it …
(A noble boke off cookry ffor a prynce houssolde or eny other estately houssolde: reprinted verbatim from a rare ms. in the Holkham collection, edited by Mrs Alexander Napier. London, Elliot Stock, 1882)
granes = grains of Paradise (Melegueta pepper);
sanders = red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santolinus);
leche Lombard = Lombard slice (a meat loaf);
pare = pare (peel); streyne = strain; smothe = smooth;
douced = sweetened; amydon = amidon (wheat starch);
rise = rice; coffyn = pie crust; ij dais = 2 days;
liste = list (like); strawe = strew; senymon = cinnamon
As you can see, it’s definitely the stiff paste version. Its nearest relative today would be the stiff quince paste (membrillo) that the Spaniards still make from quinces. Making dishes such as these, which I think may derive from the halva of the Middle East and the halwa of India, does take a long time—and a lot of heavy stirring by hand!
So you could just stew your pears with some sugar and add a grating of nutmeg.