I took a draught more heady than absinthe today, with not a drop of alcohol in it.
In fact it has become a furtive pleasure in these spartan days of January, when all the rich stodge of the English Christmas sits heavy at the waist.
Warming red wine without any alcohol, I quarter a fresh orange so that its aroma leaps across the air molecules in my kitchen with zesty energy. I stick cloves-which might have been made specifically for this purpose- in the orange skin.
I set the quarters to warm in the wine, adding sugar, and turning at last with speculative fingers to my enchanted box of spices from foreign lands.
Two sticks of cinnamon; a spoon full of ginger.
In the midst of Christmas I made a batch of mulled wine to this recipe, and took a long draught and waited for the magic to hit. But it was lacking something; a piquance, an edge, an ancient aroma which has travelled the globe on the ancient spice routes.
It was missing a small, olive sized woody ovoid, an unassuming channeller of the exotic: nutmeg.
Once I had grated it, the air was full of such Eastern promise I could almost hear that passage from Arabian Nights, as Sinbad the Sailor describes a vessel laden with the most sensual of spices.
“I then took leave…and exchanging my merchandise for sandal and aloes wood, camphor, nutmegs, cloves, pepper and ginger, I embarked upon the same vessel and traded so successfully upon our homeward voyage that I arrived in Balsora with about one hundred thousand sequins.”
Always one for a fast buck, that Sinbad. Or rather, a fast sequin. His modus operandum: live it large during boom, grin through bust and connive ones way back from destitution.
Now I insist on having a bottle of mulled wine in the corner of the kitchen for fraught moments. Because one warm sip transports me to another part of the world, somewhere which now may or may not exist these days. The combination of spices is utterly captivating, overwhelmingly sensual.
And since the rest of my fare is depressingly puritan it has rendered itself invaluable.
There is a word: entrepot. With a circumflex accent over the ‘o’. It means a merchant’s paradise, somewhere mariners may trade freely with no import or export duties. The word became essential knowledge for the early merchants who travelled the trading routes between Europe and its colonies.
One such entrepot was Run Island: part of the conglomeration of Banda Islands, off Indonesia. The little island, just 3km long and 1km wide, was the chief source of nutmeg trees; and therefore a highly prized scrap of territory, forever the subject of tussles between the British and the Dutch.
Nutmeg had long before found its way into our stories: Greco-Roman trade routes dealt in spices, and the Moors would set sail from Basra and return, with ships laden with vanilla and nutmeg, to Baghdad.
One of the great abbots of a ninth century Constantinople monastery, Theodore the Studite, was known to let his monks jolly up their interminable pease pudding with a sprinkling of nutmeg. Around 800 years later, when it became recommended by apothecaries as a cure for the plague, the price shot up.
It is easy, in this world of stimulants and additives, to overlook this most seductive of spices, once prized, harmless but evocative.
Did novelist Frank Herbert fall under the spell of its sophisticated charm too? Is that one of the reasons he used the term ‘spice’ to express the central device of his science fiction novel ‘Dune’?
His alternative world, set 20,000 years in the future when man has conquered space and trade routes are intergalactic, is dominated by a substance called ‘melange’, commonly referred to as ‘spice’.
Just like nutmeg, it can only be found in one place: a desert planet, Arrakis. It is controlled by a great corporation. The benefits of this spice are beyond price: those who take it live longer, they can see into the future; and some can use it to ‘bend space’, piloting men around their impossibly vast domain.
Somehow the Dune stories share the seduction of those old tales of importer-exporter Sinbad; the aroma of spice is pungent around both collections of tales.
How does a small round nutmeg inspire such battling and storytelling? How does a mere flavouring evoke something and somewhere one has never been, somewhere which may not even exist?
We know our sense of smell evokes an ancient and primitive part of the brain- the place where our deepest emotions lurk.
It seems spice may be able to hotwire our minds to conjure experiences we have never had.
An argument for social memory?