Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Little Nut That Changed The World

Happy five year anniversary to Nutmeg Kitchens! It’s hard to believe that in January 2007, I began this little enterprise with no premonition of where it would lead me or if I’d even be in business for five months, let alone five years. I’ve tackled some challenges I never expected, like dealing with the bureaucracy of starting a business, developing the confidence to market myself and work with QuickBooks, which I truly do not like doing. I love my work and I am most grateful for my wonderful clients. Thank you for your patronage, referrals and friendship!

Over the years, I’ve been asked how I came about naming my business Nutmeg Kitchens. It’s a two-fold answer.

When the naming process for my new enterprise began, I was encouraged by wonderful mentors at the now-defunct Personal Chef Network to incorporate my own name into that of my business and add a culinary twist in possible. Margaret’s Personal Chef Service was too unimaginative and it reminded me of what my mother called me when she was angry. Scratch that one. Portola Portable Pantry was universally shot down as too alliterative and too closely associated with those charming blue capsules often seen at construction sites.

After brainstorming for several hours with my husband, we landed on Nutmeg, a nickname I’d been given years ago when I went by Meg as a travel agent. I thought the colleague who christened me thought I was a pretty spicy thing, but she said, “No, you’re just a nut!” But the nickname worked perfectly to invoke the images I wanted for my new moniker; warmth, comfort, fragrance, something familiar with a bit of the exotic. Nutmeg Kitchens it was! I love my corporate identity too; the little bubbling pot conveys the whimsy and conviviality I want my clients to enjoy and remember after a Nutmeg event.

But really, what is Nutmeg? Well, in the 1600’s it was to European spice merchants what the Facebook IPO is to investment bankers today - a windfall.

Myrisitica fragrans is the evergreen tree which produces the fruit from which the nutmeg seed is derived. What made it so valuable, and elusive, is that, up until the late 1700’s, nutmeg was grown only on the tiny specks of volcanic rock that are the Banda Islands, in the Indonesian archipelago not far from New Guinea. Prized for centuries when first brought to Europe via the Spice Road, nutmeg's source was never revealed by Arab traders who first brought it to Venice. The search for nutmeg began in earnest once Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English navigators mastered the high seas following Vasco de Gama’s first visit to the Moluccas,or what would later be known as the Spice Islands, in 1512. Ruthlessness, cunning, deceit, disease, murder, death, years at sea and lots of money were all a part of a merchant fleet's sail around Cape Horn and into the treacherous waters of the Indian Ocean, and then the Ceram and the Celebes seas to the Banda Islands.

Giles Milton, in his lively and well-researched book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History details of the spice race with vivid stories of shipwrecks, kidnappings by Mogul warlords, vicious sea battles between competing national fleets, bribery of locals, and most of all, the importance of nutmeg’s trade to the financial stability of the countries involved.

The book’s opening paragraph captures the essence of the story, conveying the magic that a small brown nut brought to those seeking it.

“The island can be smelled before it can be seen. From more than ten miles out to sea, a fragrance hangs in the air…

“So it was on 23 December 1616. The Swan’s captain, Nathaniel Courthope needed no compass nor astrolabe to know they had arrived…He had at last reached Run, one of the smallest and richest of all the islands in the East Indies.”

Captain Courthope defended Run against the claims of the the Dutch East India Company with the help of the island's inhabitants who accepted the English King as their sovereign, creating the first English overseas colony. The Dutch laid siege to Run and after four years, with Nathaniel Courthope dead, the Brits and the locals loyal to them departed the island, beleaguered and in desperate straits.

The Treaty of Breda ended the 1665-67 second Anglo-Dutch war and gave Manhattan and all North American Dutch holdings to the English. Run, though technically still a British possession until this point, was officially ceded to the Dutch East Indies Company, giving the Netherlands a complete monopoly on the nutmeg trade.

Nutmeg fruit and nut with outer netting of mace,
another spice compliments of Myrisitica fragrans

According to Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, in the blog piece, Nutmeg and Mace History, “The Dutch waged a bloody war, including the massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of the island of Banda, just to control nutmeg production in the East Indies. In 1760, the price of nutmeg in London was 85 to 90 shillings per pound, a price kept artificially high by the Dutch voluntarily burning full warehouses of nutmegs in Amsterdam. The Dutch held control of the Spice Islands until World War II. “

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Dutch should’ve been quite pleased when French seaman Peter Poirve (how's that for a spicy name?) pilfered some nutmeg seeds from the Bandas and planted them in Mauritius, ending Holland’s nutmeg monopoly. Likewise, the Brits smuggled seeds to their colonies in Southeast Asia and the West Indies. The island of Grenada, where nutmeg has flourished, is called The Nutmeg Island, and its flag represents the tree that has brought it fame and fortune.

Nutmeg is not a seasoning one uses in large quantity. A mere 2 teaspoons can produce a high accompanied by hallucinations, similar to other nefarious substances. There’s a reason a little grate will do you! But that little grating will provide any dish with a singular sweet-piney flavor, distinctive yet subtle.

Associated most often with sweets such as custards and cookies, or as an ingredient in mulling spices, nutmeg can also be used in savory cooking, such as béchamel sauce, roasted squash and creamed spinach. One of my favorite preparations is even simpler, Patricia Wells' Just Spinach!

You’ll need:
A large, deep skillet with a lid
2 pounds spinach leaves, stemmed, washed and spun, though I like the pre-washed greens
Kosher Salt
Freshly grated nutmeg

Place the spinach in the skillet with several tablespoons of water. Cover and cook over high heat until the spinach is completely wilted, about 3-4 minutes. Drain thoroughly in a colander, toss with the sea salt and the nutmeg. Serve warm.

I hope the next time you dust your mocha latte with a bit of Myrisitica, you’ll reflect on the colorful history of the little nut that changed the world, and also think of Nutmeg Kitchens and five years of bringing spice to your kitchen!

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