Eleanor Ford’s enticing cookbook The Nutmeg Trail explores the global history and use of spices—not just in cuisine, but in medicinal remedies, incense, and aphrodisiacs.
Ford notes that the spice trade lured explorers for centuries, with the value of certain spices exceeding the price of gold. Spice expeditions were both fascinating and exploitative: travels across oceans and along the legendary Silk Road spurred excessive demand and colonial aggression. Spice merchants invented encounters with dragons and fearsome serpents to exaggerate the dangers of their travels and increase the cost of their wares.
The Nutmeg Trail classifications include roots and rhizomes, like of ginger and licorice; pods, like vanilla and cardamom; and seeds, like nutmeg, mustard, and cumin. Variations in spice palettes are contrasted, like the hot, tart, and fresh flavors of Central and South India, and the warm, redolent tastes of the Levant. As a surprisingly common element, “unassuming” nutmeg finds its way into German cookies, Greek moussaka, Jamaican jerk, Chinese five-spice powder, and the secret formula for Coca-Cola.
And the book’s diverse recipes reflect its global scope, ranging from a Balinese Green Bean Wrap to Venetian Chicken with Almond Milk and Dates. The Cauliflower and Pomegranate Pilaf blends basmati rice, garam masala, turmeric, and “sweet-sour” pomegranate seeds, while Egyptian “Birds’ Tongues” Soup simmers orzo in a broth heightened with cardamom, cloves, and mastic.
An extensive timeline chronicles the influence of spices from 50,000 BCE to the present. There are also fascinating spice facts, as of how Alexander the Great added saffron to his shampoo, how Japanese samurai ate chilies to increase their courage, and how peppercorns were used in fourteenth-century Italy as a form of currency.
With instructive photographs and charming graphics, as of tigers prowling alongside cinnamon sticks, The Nutmeg Trail is a heady, informative trip through the realms of spices and time.
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