Note: If you’re neither a cook nor cookbook reader, keep reading anyway.
When cookbooks offer more than technique or personal stories, they’re often said to achieve “beside table” status—substantial enough to engage. British food and travel writer Eleanor Ford produces such books. Her third, The Nutmeg Trail, completes a literary hat trick.
Not only does it remind us of the struggle and sacrifice it took to spread spices around the world, it reaffirms the preeminence of a brown seed that is now perhaps underappreciated, at five bucks an ounce. And its recipes promise to rouse your tastebuds. For the record, nutmeg is harvested from the yellow fruit of the tropical Myristica fragrans tree, and is encased in the spidery red covering that is mace.
Ford rightly chooses, but does not dwell upon, nutmeg as prime subject matter because of its role in human history. She posits that the ancient spice trade via the Indian Ocean, Asia, and the Middle East fused cultures, creating cooperation and exchange as well as conflict. Initially, nutmeg was ferried from a few Indonesian islands, its singular source early on.
As Caitlin PenzeyMoog writes in On Spice (2019), nutmeg has been regarded through time as, in no particular order: protector against broken bones and the Black Plague; a way to get high; a preservative for ales and wine; a popularity device; a treatment to boost blood circulation and aid digestion; an aphrodisiac. The Dutch fought to control its trade to a vicious extent in the 1500s, even burning wild nutmeg trees to keep other nations’ spice traders at bay. Ford reports that a silver nutmeg grater carried among the nobility in Western Europe “served as a suitable display of standing and refinement,” and that “the price of nutmeg outstripped gold.”
In addition to making the case in prose, Ford underscores it with annotated illustrations of signature spice blends. The trail is evident: Nutmeg has figured in Persians’ advieh, Arabic baharat, the berbere of Ethiopia, the xawaash of Yemen, in some of India’s garam masalas, and in China’s five-spice powder. (The attendant artwork of Marcela Restrepo throughout The Nutmeg Trail provides more incentive for readers to linger.)
A timeline and list of spice miscellany highlight achievements fit for a Jeopardy competition. What is 2000 B.C.? When cinnamon and cassia were first traded. The 19th century? With mystiques dispelled and supplies dependable, that’s when spices become an everyday, widely accessible commodity. Why is Connecticut called the Nutmeg State? The answer’s involved, but it has to do with shady traders there who sold nutmegs carved out of wood instead of the expensive, real thing. The term “nutmeg” became a metaphor for trickery and accounts for a satisfying ” ’MEGS!” uttered when a soccer player dribbles a pass through an opponent’s legs.
Pie charts of a dozen common spices arranged across a two-page spread further delineate nutmeg’s charms. It’s all about balance. Percentages of its flavor notes show 50 percent consists of equal parts sweet/warm, with the rest equal parts bitter/floral/woody/astringent. In comparison, ginger breaks down as roughly 33 percent hot, with the rest equal parts woody/citrusy/medicinal/penetrating.
I admit, this visual treatment appealed enormously to the geek in me. Plus, I suspect it will help inform the way I cook. Nutmeg’s astringent notes could amend a too-sweet dessert while its dominant sweetness/warmth might add depth to a meaty stew. As Ford writes, “It is the complexity of spices that makes them so valuable … different aspects interplaying with other ingredients to enhance taste.” The balance found in nutmeg’s compounds explains why the spice can (and should!) swing savory more often.
About the recipes: Some take 10 minutes, some go for several hours. Most fall somewhere in between, and explore possibilities with chilies, lemongrass, cardamom, lime leaves, peppercorns, and more. Simple preparations that deliver big flavors is how Ford describes her selections. They represent significant heritage and tradition, and reflect the cooking she does in her own London kitchen. Her Sri Lankan pumpkin curry’s a fine example, an attempt to re-create a memorable meal the author had in Kandy, a central Sri Lankan city ringed by mountains. Spices blended into the country’s dark curry powders are typically roasted first, to coax out their smoky nuttiness.
Ford relegates that roasting step to a sidebar option and achieves the magic she remembers by blooming curry leaves with black mustard and cumin seeds in a slick of sputtering hot oil before adding onion, chilies, and garlic. Ground cinnamon, turmeric, and freshly grated nutmeg go in next, with direction to wait until “the fragrance hits you.” Coconut milk, water, Delica or butternut squash, salt, and a finishing squeeze of lime juice later, the curry’s done in less than an hour—including a 15-minute rest to let the flavors develop. Her coconut-chili flatbreads and a quick, fresh coconut sambal (condiment) would complement the meal.
Note: If you are a cook or cookbook reader, do yourself a flavor (sic) and keep whole nutmegs on hand. The preground kind is not as potent. Grate them fresh—into more foods than you previously imagined.
The Nutmeg Trail: Recipes and Stories Along the Ancient Routes
by Eleanor Ford
Apollo, 256 pp., $40
Bonnie S. Benwick, formerly of the Washington Post food section, is a freelance editor and recipe tester. You can find her on Instagram: @bbenwick.