Spices and Seduction

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 Β 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?

34 thoughts on “Spices and Seduction

  1. Hmm…..I definitely prefer your Frank Herbert spice post to mine, though maybe having the spice in our collective unconscious as an important metaphor is some kind of kindred-spirit test. There is so much in the Dune world to treasure; the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, for example, is one of those rare passages that have survived the erosion that age has worked on my mind. Sorry–this rambling comment has nothing to do with nutmeg! But I think you really refer to a different sort of spice anyway.

    It’s very late in my part of the world, and the newer, higher-function parts of my brain are apparently asleep, leaving only the ancient throbbing limbic bundle of associative leverage active. I am fresh out of mulled wine, but found a one-glass bottle of Barefoot merlot in my desk drawer, which I raise in your honor.

    1. We are Dune fans both, Barbara: I do hope you won’t mind if I include the link to your wonderful post. So much to think about there, and so much more about the world created by Frank Herbert. And yes, I guess a more universal spice was at the heart of the post anyway, it would just have taken a very long time to research the history of every spice!

      Thank you. It’s always a treat when you pop in and draw up a chair.

      http://wheniwasfat.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/my-mouth-was-like-a-giant-sandworm

  2. The history of the world over the last 500 years has hinged on the desire for exotic spices. I can sense those aromas as I read your post. A fascinating read, almost as uplifting as your spicy potion!

    1. Thank you, Rosemary: it is astounding how such spices have been linked with the search for power…I read somewhere that the Dutch once burned a huge warehouse of nutmeg just to keep the price artificially high. The things man will do…

  3. My husband has a tale of mulled wine, but it’s not for here.

    Nutmeg is a funny thing… a wild creature of a spice. Pulverized and readily available in a jar it’s not quite the same as snatched from the whole by a pass of a grater. Those stolen snowflakes of aroma are something quite different.

    And into this you’ve woven Dune.

    Really, you bend my brain. And it’s lovely.

    1. One day I hope to learn the tale of The Mulled Wine of Mr Garriepy.

      The Arabian Nights and Dune are both tales of spice traders. Back then the sea was the great unexplored, and now it’s space. My, how time flies.
      And I so agree about the grating. It’s the only way for the purist πŸ™‚

  4. I add nutmeg to just about any recipe that calls for cinnamon. They go so well together. And, you’re right. That little dash of nutmeg turns ordinary things into something exotic.

    I love how you took this through time, Kate.

  5. It’s not only the grating of it (never, ever to be bought powdered! please!) but try to get someone to bring you one which is still in it’s shiny brown nut casing. Which I don’t think you get if you buy it in jars from the supermarket (not here anyway). A really fresh nutmeg rattling around in its casing (which, incidentally, might be covered by a lacy orange net which is mace) is a whole different thing again from just the ordinary little nut…

    Nice post.

  6. I’m not familiar with Dune, but, nutmeg, ah, nutmeg . . . just the thought of nutmeg has my senses in a whirl. I need to make a desert to take to a dinner tonight, and was sitting here, pondering what to make, and you bring up nutmeg, a spice which intoxicates me, especially grated and fresh. Oh, just the thought, alone! and now I know what to make. I have a cake I make sometimes with sherry and nutmeg and it has such a distinctive flavor and aroma and gets better the longer it sits, so, that is that, Kate. Probably not where you thought your wondrous post would lead, but, an epiphany of sorts for this ol’ gal.

  7. Did you know a LITTLE nutmeg in a teaspoon of milk settles a child with colic? but only a tiny sprinkle.

    Cinnamon does it for me.

    I like water too much to want to be a Fremen, yet the idea of controlling the ‘spice-creators’ holds immense appeal.

    Now I feel a Dune-fest coming on………..

  8. Orange, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon … I can smell them now. Mmm. It helps, of course, that there’s still some orange peel in my sink from late last night … It’s difficult to imagine a more delightful kitchen bouquet than this.

  9. Oooohhh! Ahhhhh! You did transport me somewhere special…memory, yes! I was immediately reminiscent of a very plain, and some would say almost tasteless, egg custard I enjoyed as a child. I haven’t had some in decades…but what set it apart and made it special was the sprinkle of good nutmeg on top. I must make this again! And I like the idea (very much) of having some mulled wine on hand for both the warming and relaxation it can immediately offer, but you’re so right, the combination of spices can really provide a sense of exotic travel. It’s early morning here–that and I have work to do–but thank you. I’ll have a little vacation in my head until I can get home and cook something heady! πŸ™‚ Debra

      1. Blurry hell, Pseu: “These data and many others have proved that nutmeg can be, and is a dangerous drug. It has been known to produce death in large enough doses.”

        Better lay off the nutmeg….

      1. I bet your quantities are quite moderate though! not taken in hallucinogenic quantities in your household πŸ™‚

  10. Pseu’s research puts a whole new spin on your lead-in sentence, Kate:
    I took a draught more heady than absinthe today, with not a drop of alcohol in it. πŸ˜‰

    I love spices . . . that photo at the top is so enticing.

  11. πŸ™‚ Kate – Love your delicious turn of the phrase. I also very much appreciate that you are taking the time to be “present” on a daily basis… Isn’t it nice how our writing helps us do this, too?

    Mollie

    1. Thanks, Polly: and it is. I never cease to be thankful for social media which helps us connect with a whole world out we I would never have dreamed of, even a couple of decades ago. Twitter’s cool too… πŸ™‚

  12. Oh, appealing to both my love of spice and my love of Dune.

    This is a dangerous blog for me to hang about it, apparently.

    But it is quite cozy around here, I must say.

    Quite cozy indeed.

  13. A wonderful post, Kate – tales of spices, their origin and discovery are always so marvellously full of mystery and skulduggery on the high seas, they intoxicate the mind – this is probably the reason the history lessons on the Dutch East India Company were the only ones on South African history I enjoyed in school – all that other ox-wagon stuff was oh so yawnworthy

    1. I know very little about any of the companies formed to cruise the globe transporting bounty. I keep knocking up against them in my researches: time to delve more deeply, I think πŸ™‚

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