Our ‘sourcing’ is never static here at Rooted Spices. We’re always striving to track down the best spices and work as directly with growers as possible. There is always room for improvement. So, when we got a tip-off about an organic nutmeg plantation on the east coast of Grenada – The Spice Island – it was too tempting not to go check out.
Nutmeg is not an easy spice to grow. The conditions have to be just right. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the entire global harvest came from 11 global outcrops in modern-day Indonesia known as the Banda Islands. The fact that this is the only place where nutmeg was grown, combined with its sheer popularity meant that the supply was limited, the demand was huge and prices were astronomical. No wonder that horticulturalists were keen to export seeds round the world to find other growing regions. There were great fortunes were at stake.
In the 1870s Grenada proved to be just one of a few places where nutmeg thrived. It’s a volcanic island – which means that the soil is incredibly rich and fertile. Critically, the sloping earth allows bursts of tropical rain to drain away. That way the trees can take a good long drink without their roots rotting in settled water.
Unlike lots of Caribbean Islands, Grenada is fairly sheltered. It’s useful, because nutmeg trees have quite shallow roots and aren’t designed to withstand strong winds. Until Hurricane Ivan hit (2004) there hadn’t been a big storm there since the early-1960s and nutmeg flourished. Sadly, in just 45 minutes a mess of twisters obliterated the island’s crop. It’s only now that trees which were replanted since are reaching full maturity.
It makes it an exciting time for the island. Nutmeg is a much-loved spice on Grenada. You’ll find nutmeg chicken and nutmeg fish stew, nutmeg ice cream and pancakes drenched in nutmeg syrup. There isn’t a much bigger enthusiast than Bobbie Garbutt – who is the forth-generation grower at L’Esterre Organics – and who has just taken over the running of the estate.
We joined her for a walking tour round L’Esterre Estate. Firstly, to a growing area called Bagatelle which still had a few old trees which withstood Hurricane Ivan. There, the nutmeg trees grow alongside cocoa trees, banana trees, tonka beans, hibiscus. There aren’t any neat rows, and tradition in the Caribbean dictates that the harvest is all done by hand once the nutmeg has fallen from the trees and cracked open to reveal the white flesh (‘pericarp’) in which the precious mace-wrapped nutmeg is embedded.
Something which Bobbie is looking into is introducing the practice of ‘rodding’. This would involve picking the nutmeg from the tree. Something she believes will reduce wastage and result in even better quality nutmeg. She is also looking to improve the post-harvest process. Most importantly checking the moisture content before ‘cracking’ to ensure that the nutmeg is neither over- or under-dried.
It’s hard not to find Bobbie’s enthusiasm for nutmeg infectious. Not just in the care she takes in growing and harvesting – but also the cooking. A self-confessed addict, she likes to grate nutmeg over hot buttered toast. After touring the estate we sit down to lunch together and the smell of nutmeg cookies drifts into the dining room from the estate kitchen.
We discuss how interesting it is that Grenada has embraced non-native nutmeg into its cuisine. Meanwhile nearby Guatemala doesn’t have any trace of non-native cardamom in its cuisine – despite the crop being introduced at a similar time and also it being one of the biggest global producers.
During the rest of the time we spend on the island, we detect fragrant traces of nutmeg lacing island stews and it makes us reflect on how nutmeg is used back in the UK. It’s seen as a ‘winter’ spice used for mulling, wilted spinach, béchamel sauce. Not necessarily a spice which sings in hot-weather food. We arrange for a shipment to come back to the UK and take a handful with us to tide us over – pledging to capture the island’s warmth not just in winter dishes when we get back but well into summertime and beyond.