Black pepper

In the second episode of The Spice Trail, Kate Humble travelled to Indonesia to the original source of two spices that were used to flavour food and as medicines and status symbols in 16th century Europe – Nutmeg and Cloves.

Like the first episode on pepper and cinnamon, this one is weighted in favour of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans). We discover its original home in the Banda Islands and the devastation the Dutch wrought when they came in search of a trade monopoly and stayed to colonise the islands. The wounds are still fresh in the minds of the islanders, centuries later. There’s a lot of history enmeshed with the nutmeg trade, as it is responsible for the English gaining control of New York.

Nutmeg was taken from the islands and used to create plantations elsewhere (notably India and the Caribbean), but the Banda islands still produce 500 tonnes of nutmeg every year, and it is said to be of the highest quality.

Nutmeg is a multi-purpose tree. You may know that mace is another spice, made from a thin red layer (the aril) around the nutmeg itself. They’re both encased in a fruit, which is used to make jam, syrups and nutmeg candy :)

Moving to Ternate, a Sultanate in the Indonesian islands, Kate finds the heavily scented home of cloves – which are the dried flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum. They have to be picked by hand, then carefully dried and separated from the stalks. The cloves themselves are used as a spice and medicinally; the clove stalks are smooshed up and used to flavour cigarettes…. The story of Ternate is slightly more upbeat – they managed to lay siege to their Dutch oppressors and eventually starve them out and regain control of their island and their clove harvest!

This episode will be available to watch on the iPlayer for the next nine days, and I can thoroughly recommend it for the glimpses of life in Indonesia it offers, as well as seeing the plants we take for granted in their natural habitat. I am very much looking forward to the third and final episode, which is due to air this week – it’s on saffron and vanilla and will be taking us to Morocco, Spain and Mexico.

© Copyright Emma Cooper, 2011. All rights reserved. Originally posted at, where Emma loves talking about edible and otherwise useful plants!