With autumn upon us, some turn morbid in our thinking. Maybe it’s that defiant blaze of leaf-color before the inevitable rot. Maybe it’s the growing length of the darkness trapped in a 24-hour blip, or the wind’s icy reminder that, no matter how we run, time will catch up to us eventually.
Or maybe it’s just all the damn pumpkin spice.
Cinnamon. Nutmeg. Ginger. Cloves. Allspice. Beautiful substances, but when you put them together in a marketer’s scheme called “Pumpkin Spice” and stick it in frozen yogurt and Oreos and burgers and beer and potato chips, the cynical among us start wishing we could hibernate sensibly through Pumpkin Spice Season, like bears.
I’m praying that we’ve reached Peak Pumpkin Spice. When Durex feels the need to issue a tweet refuting the rumor of a forthcoming limited-edition pumpkin spice condom — “We can’t claim this one, but we do love it when people spice it up in the bedroom” — we have to be close, right? Right? (I hear crickets. Perky crickets, in tiny Lululemon pants, ordering pumpkin spice lattes.)
There’s much to mock in the PS frenzy, but with Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, it seemed time to investigate nutmeg, the muscle of the spice gang of five.
“Nutmeg is such an autumn spice,” says Scott Clime, wine and beverage director at Passion Food Hospitality, who uses it as the final flourish in several drinks at Penn and District Commons. “It adds a little something and smoothes the drink out.”
Grated over a brandy milk punch, worked into the fatty topping of a hot buttered rum or sprinkled atop a Colonial-era Rattle-Skull as Clime uses it at Penn Commons, nutmeg can take you somewhere exotic, surrounded by blue waters and fringed with orchids and jasmine. The scent of nutmeg conjures places where, to paraphrase beloved old sexist-pig poet Philip Larkin, boys and old men “dream of native girls who bring breadfruit, whatever they are.”
Having read up on the history of nutmeg, I’m now unable to smell it without thinking of what the great seafaring powers — especially the English and the Dutch — put the inhabitants of the East Indies through in order to obtain such prized spices.
The Banda Islands, for centuries the source of all nutmeg, drift some 550 miles north of Darwin, Australia. There, in the 1600s, the spice could be had for less than a penny for 10 pounds, but back in London it underwent a 60,000 percent markup, writes Giles Milton in the fascinating “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History.”
“A small sackful was enough to set a man up for life . . . London’s merchants were so concerned about the illegal trade in nutmeg when their first fleet arrived back in London that they ordered the dockyard workers to wear ‘suits of canvas without pockets.’” Representatives of the European trading companies, seeking to protect their spice sources, engaged in everything from mafia-style protection racketeering to slaving to outright genocide.
In the price hike nutmeg underwent along its journey back to the European capitals, it had much in common with arrack, an Indonesian spirit made from sugar cane and rice that formed the base of many of early punches, says drinks historian and writer David Wondrich. The history of punch is intimately linked with the sea trade that brought arrack and spices to Europe; it “came together in that part of the world,” Wondrich says. “Arrack, when it made it back to England, was the most expensive spirit you could get because of the long supply chain, but in the East it was very cheap.”
He suspects part of the reason people in those far-flung colonies ground nutmeg into their punches was simply because it was there: “I think they were throwing around these expensive luxury ingredients and having fun doing it because they were widely available.”
Nutmeg plays beautifully with arrack, and as for other spirits, along with brandy, Wondrich cites the 3 Rs: “rum, rum and rum.” Clime likes it with almost any drink that has a creamy mouth feel.
What makes the spice so good, so tempting? “It’s more aromatic than cinnamon,” Wondrich says, “and cinnamon tends to take over. A tiny amount of cinnamon and you’re drinking cinnamon. But nutmeg is fairly subtle.”
Don’t be lazy and use the stuff already ground up in a jar. While it’s technically nutmeg, it’s grainier, grittier, funkier and much less delicate than what you can produce with a seed and a Microplane grater. And if you’re nutmegging your drinks to celebrate the holidays, it looks way more old-school cool and festive to grate the seed fresh. Heed the words of Wondrich in his book “Punch”: “Anyone who would spice his or her Punch with ground nutmeg out of a jar would make fettuccine Alfredo with the ‘parmesan’ that comes in a can.”
Smelling these fragrant little orbs of spice now, I consider the vagaries of time. It is in the Hague, after all, that the International Criminal Court now resides. Had that body been around in the 1600s, it might have had a thing or two to say about the Dutch East India Company’s brutal methods of acquiring nutmeg. These seeds that once drove men to the ends of the Earth to commit treachery and murder, I can now walk to the grocery store and buy for around $6 for a small bottle. I tip one out and grate it gently across the surface of a drink. What I smell, raising the cup to my face, is a spice that perfectly captures mutability — the essence of autumn.
Scorn pumpkin spice, that inescapable marketing treacle of fall. But be thankful for nutmeg. It’s been through enough.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.