Colonial Chocolate Spices: Nutmeg
Visitors to Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop are often surprised to discover that our colonial drinking chocolate is seasoned with eight different spices. American Heritage Historic Chocolate is flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, chili pepper, anise, orange zest, salt, and annatto, as well as a small amount of sugar. We will be taking a closer look at each of these spices to explore their origins and uses in colonial American cooking.
Nutmeg compliments the cinnamon in our colonial drinking chocolate to create a distinctive spicy flavor that our visitors often comment on. While nutmeg is frequently used alongside cinnamon, its unique story stands on its own. Nutmegs are seeds found within the fruit of the Myristica fragrans plant, an evergreen tree that grows in tropical areas. The tree produces a fleshy yellow fruit that splits open when ripe to reveal a single large seed, which is the nutmeg. Nutmegs are surrounded by an outer coat that is removed and dried to produce mace, another distinct spice. Nutmegs are sold whole or as a grated powder.
Nutmeg is native to several small islands that make up part of modern day Indonesia. By the 12th century, nutmeg was available to the very wealthy of Europe through traders from the Middle East. The Portuguese military discovered and conquered the nutmeg producing islands in the early 1500s and maintained control of them until the early 1600s when the Dutch East India Company seized all but one of these islands, which fell under British control. In 1667, a treaty between the Dutch and British gave the Dutch control of the last remaining nutmeg producing island in exchange for British control of the island of Manhattan. The Dutch East India Company maintained their monopoly on the nutmeg trade through extreme and often brutal measures until 1769, when a French trader named Pierre Poivre successfully smuggled nutmeg trees off the islands and replanted them in French territories. Today nutmeg is grown in tropical regions around the world.
Nutmeg was one of the most common and popular spices in colonial America and is found in a vast number of 18th century recipes. Today we often associate nutmeg with seasonal fall and winter cooking, and in colonial America it was already being used in some of these familiar recipes, including pumpkin pie and gingerbread, but it was not limited to these uses. It was called for in many sweet pudding recipes, including this sippet pudding and boiled carrot pudding. Nutmeg was also frequently used in savory vegetable, meat, and seafood dishes, such as carrot puffs, onion pie, beef broth, and crab cakes. Nutmeg was such a commonplace seasoning in 18th century kitchens that it is listed in one 18th century cookbook as an ingredient in almost 100 different recipes. It’s no surprise that a spice this popular was also used to season drinking chocolate!