There is a cold front hovering over the northern part of Mississippi right now. It’s definitely colder than usual for this time of year and will get even worse over the next couple of days before the front moves on. But while it’s cold, I’m indulging myself by making my favorite fall treats. Apple cake, wassail, mulled cider. I love the way they smell and the way they taste. It’s hard not to feel warm and fuzzy while drinking mulled cider and smelling apple cake.
That’s the key, really. The smell of it all is what calms me and puts me in the right frame of mind for sweaters and fuzzy socks. Y’all can harp on skipping Thanksgiving all you want (I like Christmas movies and carols, dang it. Get off me), but when I start to smell nutmeg on a regular basis, it’s time for warm fires, thick blankets, and saccharine holiday movies.
That’s my signal: nutmeg. Everyone always mentions cinnamon, but in most of my faves nutmeg is the star of the show. I love cinnamon, too, but nutmeg is the fragrance I adore. So, this month, I’m showing love to an underappreciated spice. Because, after all, our characters should be using all their senses to draw the reader into their world/experience. Smell is closely associated with memory. Wars have been fought over access to spice routes. And some of the things in your spice cabinet today, probably aren’t as innocuous as you think–and the same is true of your characters.
10 things you might not know about nutmeg:
- It comes from the ground up seed of a type of evergreen called “true nutmeg”. The seed covering is also used to make a spice. True nutmegs are native to a small island in Indonesia.
- The islands around where nutmeg grows are known as the Spice Islands and Indonesia still has a 75% market share of nutmeg exportation worldwide.
- Indonesian traders would trade with merchants in India and the Middle East. Those merchants would then carry nutmeg to European ports, but wouldn’t divulge the origin of the spice. It wasn’t until the Portuguese invaded the islands that it was discovered (in 1512).
- In medieval Europe, nutmeg was thought to be a treatment and a preventative measure against the plague. Though today researchers say it has no medicinal properties, it made the spice quite lucrative at the time.
- Though the Portuguese were the ones to invade the Banda Islands (the part of Indonesia where nutmeg grows naturally), they weren’t able to completely conquer them. It wasn’t until the Dutch East India Company came a-colonizin’ in 1621 that the islands lost a monopoly on the spice (along with so many other things).
- In the 17th and 18th centuries, unscrupulous and desperate merchants would actually fake the look of nutmeg by grating wood and selling the shavings. “Wooden nutmeg” eventually became a common term for many types of business fraud.
- There are other types of trees that also bear the name nutmeg (the California Nutmeg, for example), but they are not closely related and do not produce the same flavor of spice.
- In small amounts, nutmeg makes a fragrant and flavorful addition to culinary dishes. However, in its purest form, or in large quantities, nutmeg is a toxin and psychoactive substance. Common symptoms of nutmeg intoxication are chills, anxiety, delirium/hallucinations, nausea, dizziness, headaches, and amnesia. It may take several hours for such symptoms to begin, but they can last for several days.
- When a new nutmeg tree is planted, it takes approximately nine years before the first harvest of nutmeg seeds can occur. The tree reaches full production after about twenty years.
- While we (and I mean “I” because I can’t really speak for anyone else) most closely associate nutmeg with the smells of the holiday season (pumpkin pie, etc), it can also be used to make industrial lubricants, toothpaste, and cough syrup.
What plant or spice is native to the world your character lives in? How does its cultivation/exportation affect the character’s world and/or life? What is it used for? You may not use all of those details in the story, but if you know the answers to the questions, you’ve already made your world more unique and identifiable.