The Nutmeg Islands


When I was a little girl, my mother used to make this old-fashioned yogurt-like pudding called junket. She would liberally sprinkle the top with ground nutmeg, claiming it was a good remedy for an upset stomach. My mother also used nutmeg whenever she baked apple-pie or potato gratin, and she’d sometimes add it to soups, stews, sauces, and drinks including eggnog. I remember her telling me it was her favourite spice because of its extraordinary history, assuring me, “It was once more valuable than gold,” and “it was believed to have been a cure for the bubonic plague.” She told me that it came from some obscure tropical islands on the other side of the world…

Nutmeg is indigenous to the volcanic soils of the Indonesian Banda Islands, and in the 15th and 16th centuries, this aromatic spice spurred exploration and shaped colonial empires. It’s not surprising, therefore, that colonial powers vied bitterly for control of the only place on Earth where this spice could be found.

Fort Belgica, built by the Dutch in 1611

In the early 17th century, the Dutch they were so ruthless about getting the nutmeg trade for themselves that they massacred most of the native population of the Banda Islands. Dutch attempts to maintain a total monopoly on the nutmeg trade were thwarted by the British, who controlled Run, one of the tiny islands in the Banda chain.

Run

It turned out, however, that another island, 9,500 miles away, would be the key to securing Dutch control of the nutmeg trade. New Amsterdam was Holland’s strategic colonial outpost in the New World, and in 1667, the English traded Run for New Amsterdam, which later became Manhattan.

Many decades after watching my mother sprinkle nutmeg on her junket, I came to live in Indonesia and decided to follow the spice trail for myself.

The fabled Banda Islands are just about as far off the map of the modern world as you can get these days. Arriving by sea, I felt on par with the pioneering adventurers and was awestruck by the plantations. Here, the evergreen nutmeg trees – identifiable by the hundreds of ripening yellow fruits that hang from their branches—grow randomly in the shade of the magnificent kenari trees, which themselves yield an almond-like nut locally used in confectionary and sauces. Kenari is what keeps the nutmeg trees growing; towering trees – tall like the buildings in Manhattan, planted to protect the nutmeg from the sun.

The nutmeg fruit is similar in appearance to an apricot.

When ripe it splits in two, exposing a crimson-coloured, lacy or filigree-like aril – the mace, surrounding a single shiny, brown seed – the nutmeg. The locals use the pulp of the fruit to make syrup, jam and candy; the mace is removed, flattened out and dried in the sun.

The nut is also sun-dried for up to two months until the inner nut rattles inside the shell, which is then broken to reveal the valuable, edible nutmeat.

An early European report described the Banda Islands as: “A jewel-like cluster surrounded by crystal waters and brilliant coral reefs, containing hills lined with aromatic spice trees on which perched flocks of green and red parrots.” This description can still be applied today.

Banda Ai

Despite their illustrious history, the Banda Islands are a destination that time seems to have forgotten – a very long way away from my mother’s junket and a far cry from Manhattan!

 

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