Nutmeg is the taste of Christmas, but it’s always had a wild side. Emma Hughes delves into its past and reveals her favourite recipe that infuses this festive spice into vodka.
From eggnog to steamed puddings, we depend on nutmeg for the taste of a white Christmas, however, its story begins somewhere untouched by snow: the Banda Islands of Indonesia. These inaccessible outcrops of volcanic rock are home to an evergreen that delights in the name of Myristica fragrans. When it reaches the age of 10, it bears fruit that splits when ripe to reveal an egg-speckled kernel – nutmeg – gift-wrapped in lace (this protective layer becomes mace when ground).
By the 9th century, courtesy of traders who braved rumours of a monster that lurked around the Banda Islands devouring ships, nutmeg had arrived in Constantinople, where St Theodore the Studite allowed the monks who followed him to sprinkle it on their porridge. By the 12th century, there was demand for it in Europe and, for hundreds of years, it was kicked around like a kind of spice-trade foot-ball by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British, who eventually managed to obtain fertile seedlings to plant in Grenada.
In an attempt to retain a monopoly on them, whole nutmegs were dipped in lime to stop them sprouting before they were sold. All this gave the spice a whiff of dangerous glamour: it was the Jane Russell to cinnamon’s more wholesome Marilyn Monroe.
Nutmeg was always extravagantly priced. In 16th-century London, it sold at a mark-up of 60,000% and there was a black-market trade in kernels filched by dock workers. In 1655, Samuel Pepys snuck into ‘a blind alehouse at the further end of town’ to swap a sack of gold for some nutmeg.
Its stock rose still higher when word got around that it was an aphrodisiac, a dead end people were still going down in the 20th century. The Oxford Companion to Food alludes, in brilliantly straight-faced fashion, to ‘an incident in the 1990s involving two young British visitors to Sulawesi who ate a substantial amount of the fruit’ for exactly this reason, causing hilarity in the local market.
Nutmeg’s mellow, aromatic warmth quickly evaporates when grated, hence the rattling jars for sale in supermarkets. A little goes a long way, but it’s a natural bedfellow for everything we want to eat and drink at this time of year: bread sauce, rice pudding, potted shrimp, blue cheese and hot chocolate.
I think it’s at its best in gingerbread vodka. I’ve tinkered with this recipe over the years, so the results are spicy, moreish and dangerously drinkable.
Make your own gingerbread vodka – The perfect pick-me-up after a frosty winter walk
- 1 litre of vodka
- 80g chopped crystallised ginger
- One large cinnamon stick
- A dash of vanilla essence
- A good pinch each of ground nutmeg, mace, cloves and mixed spice
- 80g soft brown sugar
- 1tspn treacle
Combine all of the ingredients in a large, air-tight container. Add to the vodka and leave in the fridge for 72 hours, giving it a good stir or shake once a day. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean jug, then pour into sterilised glass bottles.
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