There will be a smell of spices in the air in the next couple of months in kitchens with the baking of Christmas cakes, stollen, mince pies, but spare a thought for the origins of the nutmeg. Now an inexpensive spice but once the rarest of spices, extremely expensive.
Believed to originate from the tiny Banda islands, which became the centre of friction and fighting when discovered by the Europeans in the 16th century. The Portuguese followed by the Dutch and then the English ( who had a toe hold in early 1600's.) were involved in fighting over these islands for the precious nutmegs.
The Dutch in the 17th century enforced their nutmeg monopoly with brutality, imposing the death penalty on anyone suspected of stealing, growing or selling nutmegs elsewhere. They banned the export of the trees, drenching every nutmeg in lime before shipping to render it infertile. When some of the locals failed to obey, the dutch they systematically beheaded every Bandanese male over the age of 15. The population of the Banda islands was around 15,000 when the dutch arrived. 15 years later, it was only 600.
The location of these islands was a closely guarded secret and it wasn't until the late 1700's that a french gentleman smuggled out nutmegs and planted them in Mauritius and the monopoly was broken.
Nutmeg became an essential seventeenth century ingredient consumed medicinally and as a culinary delight. During the plaque demand was at an all time high as it was believed to offer protection!
First introduced in England during the seventeenth century, antique nutmeg graters were fabricated in ever increasingly, imaginative shapes and styles. Delicate silver graters were carried in the pockets of the gentry, By the late eighteenth century, fashionable creations in Battersea enamel, ivory, silver ,brass,tin, iron and of course wood resulting in a variety of antique treen nutmeg graters and the popular coquille nut ones often carved in the form of acorns.
In the 18th and early 19th century these small antique treen items were carried about in peoples pockets on a day to day basis, when spiced mulled wine was a popular drink. They all unscrew to reveal a small storage area for the nutmeg along with the grater, very ingenious!
Antique treen nutmeg graters were made in a variety of shapes the most popular being barrels,( these can vary in size and a few had mosaic lids and were made in the Tunbridge Wells area), acorns and buckets made from coquilla nutshell, and bottles. The bottles took on the shape of the wine bottle of the period. Rarer shapes can be found occassionally including shoes and even fruit e.g. pears.
Larger antique treen nutmeg graters were made for the table and were a real status symbol, showing you could afford nutmeg.
Finally an interesting fact the nutmeg trees can live to 100 and will yield up to 20,000 nutmegs a season!