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Rare Nutmeg Graters

gratersOne only needs to delve briefly into the history of Nutmeg to appreciate why this spice was held in such high regard that it deserved containers of silver and sometimes even gold. The Dutch, whose economic and commercial empire was growing continuously, had no qualms about seizing the nutmeg monopoly by pushing back Portuguese domination in 1605. To hold on to this monopoly the Dutch focused their cultivation on the two little islands of Ternate and Tidore, near the largest Maluku island. Trees were uprooted, growth pulled out and every other plant from the archipelago cleared, leaving only an easily defended surface area to be controlled. When Napoleon occupied Holland and her colonies, England occupied the East Indian Islands and nutmegs were sent to British colonies of Ceylon and Malacca, other East Indian islands and then to the Caribbean. Nonetheless, the Dutch would hold onto their monopoly until the Second World War despite efforts of the English and French.

The nutmeg tree (myristica fragrans) is a large evergreen that produces two spices: nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the seed kernel inside the fruit and mace is the lacy covering (aril) on the kernel.

Nutmeg has long been lauded as possessing or imparting magical powers and nutmegs were often used as amulets to protect against a wide variety of dangers and evils. In the Middle Ages carved wooden imitations were even sold in the streets and people carried nutmegs everywhere and many wore little graters made of silver, ivory or wood, often with a compartment for the nuts. Perhaps nutmeg’s rarity was the reason it was imbued with almost magical qualities. Herbalist John Gerard wrote in 1597 that nutmeg “is good against freckles in the face, quickneth the sight, strengthens the belly and feeble liver, taketh away the swelling of the spleen...breaketh wind, and is good against all cold diseases of the body.” It was also thought to protect against the plague.

But by the late 17th century nutmeg was more often prized for its taste in cookery, and as an ingredient in the punches popular at the time. While punch today is usually a non-alcoholic kiddie-drink, 17th - 18th century punches could lay a grown man under the table in no time. Gentlemen prided themselves on having their own closely-guarded recipes. Customary ingredients included citrus fruits, sugar, and spices, mixed with prodigious amounts of alcohol: rum, brandy, cognac, canary, and just about any other liquor on hand.

These small silver nutmeg graters are principally containers to hold one or two dried nutmegs and also to facilitate their grating by providing a rasp, either integral to the box or removable. They were produced in numbers from the reign of King Charles II (1660 - 1684) through to the 18th century and the early 19th century untill about the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837 - 1901).

The earliest types of silver nutmeg grates encountered were made from thin sheet metal, sometime with crude engravings. Usually they would have a silver grater either fixed or hinged inside the box. This permitted the dust to fall through into the box.

The graters were made on a great variety of styles and shapes and were in use throughout the first half of the Victorian era. The most frequent shape was the rectangular form with hinged cover and base, but also the barrel shape unscrewing at the centre and with a silver rimmed metal grater was highly popular. Other popular items were octagonal, oval and cylindrical shaped nutmeg graters but also circular, egg, spade and urn shapes were widely used.

Nutmeg graters were decorated with geometric motifs, bands of foliage and rococo piercing and engraving.

Sometimes the nutmeg grater was obtained by a cowrie shell enclosed by silver straps with a silver hinged cover pierced to form the grater. It’s no wonder, then, that every trendy fop and gentleman carried his own nutmeg in his pocket with him. Not only did this display his excellent palate, but it also showed that he was wealthy enough to buy both the nutmeg and one of these little sterling silver boxes, engraved with his initials, for stashing it. In a time of pretty gestures, taking out one’s grater to spice one’s meal or beverage would have been a charming nicety, and offering the same to one’s neighbour (especially a lady) at the table would have been even nicer. Any flirtation that could combine the senses was considered particularly seductive, and a fragrant grating of red-brown nutmeg, redolent of the exotic, must have inflamed the ladies indeed.

The next time you find yourself sinking your teeth, into an egg custard or milk pudding you might consider what a unique flavour and aroma the nutmeg exudes. Think about the history surrounding the humble fruit & those craftsman that went to great lengths to manufacture these useful nutmeg graters that we too can collect and use as it was intended to in days gone by.

Source & Images: Google, www.nutmeggrators.com, www.ascasonline.org & www.issuu.com

 

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