Many of our readers will know that Grenada’s other name is “The Spice Isle”. Here you’ll find cinnamon, clove, ginger, allspice, bay leaf, turmeric, saffron and of course the national symbol of Grenada, the nutmeg. It is impossible to go to Grenada and avoid the nutmeg. It is sprinkled on your rum punch, mixed in sauces, an ingredient of pastries, used for pain relief and (most tastily in my opinion) used to flavour ice cream. The tree grows profusely throughout the island, Mysristica fragrans is the botanical name of this sturdy evergreen that bushes up to a height of 70 feet.
The spice was introduced to Europe by traders around 600 AD. It proved a real hit. The Europeans went on a hunt for its source and then raced capture the Moluccas islands and monopolize the spice trade.
But why was this brown kernel so desirable? St. Hildegard stated in 1147 that if given a nutmeg on New Year’s Day and carried on your person at all times it would keep you safe from all ills. The Elizabethans in England believed it was the only cure for the Plague (or Black Death), a small bag of nutmegs would have bought you a house complete with servants at that time. It proved another incentive for Columbus’ voyages as he headed west in search of a new passage to the spice islands.
As with most stories of yore, there is some dispute over exactly how the nutmeg arrived in Grenada. The La Grenade family would tell you that their ancestor, Louis, was given seeds by a missionary in the late 1700’s. However public records state that the first nutmegs were grown at Frank Gurney’s Belvedere Estate in 1843. Was it just a coincidence that Gurney was a white Briton and La Grenada a free, coloured man of French descent?
Growing and Harvesting Nutmeg in Grenada
Grenada is perfectly equipped to nurture the nutmeg which prefers a moist, well drained soil, the roads up to the hills in the interior of the island are lined with nutmeg trees. Their thick canopy also provides an excellent shelter for the smaller cocoa trees. On the tree the nutmeg itself looks nothing like the dark brown, oval kernel that most of us are familiar with, it actually looks more like a small, bright yellow peach. Eventually the fruit will split – revealing the mace and nut inside – and falls from the tree. If picked up immediately the thick yellow skin can be used to make jams and jellies.
The nut itself is wrapped with a spiders web of a bright red waxy substance, this is mace which is picked off and left to dry in the sun. Mace is of course also a separate spice in its own right and a pound of it would have bought you three sheep in the English Dark Ages. Mace also has medicinal qualities particularly for stomach complaints.
Now we’re down to the centre which, Russian Doll like, is encased in a final hard shell. If kept in the shell the nut will stay fresh for up to thirty (yes, 30) years, without the shell it’s good for three years. Nothing is wasted and you’ll often see these broken shells underfoot on walkways around Grenada and they also serve as a mulch around plants, as a source of fuel in the boiler of the nutmeg oil distillery (in Sauteurs, North Grenada) and if burned in barbecue pits they enhance the flavour of the meat
Then of course we reach the star of the show, the nut. Bags of nutmegs from the market or spice kits from souvenir shops often include a nutmeg grater. Grate the kernel onto foods or into drinks such as rum punch, the signature drink of Grenada.