The third cookbook by award winning food writer Eleanor Ford, The Nutmeg Trail shares the recipes and stories of how “centuries of spice trading and cultural diffusion changed the world’s cuisine“. It’s a truly gorgeous book full of gloriously vivid illustrations, richly narrated history, and stories and food writing that bring the past to life.
Ford describes her aim for the book as two-fold: firstly to showcase “different techniques with spice and how to use them to create well-balanced, vibrant meals“, and secondly to share her personal project “to explore the culinary history behind spice and how it informs the food we eat“. She describes her research as taking on the role of a “culinary detective”, finding clues in recipe names, ingredients, methods and associated stories in order to build up her “project of gastronomic archeology“. We follow the winding trails of overland and marine spice trading routes all around the world from East and South East Asia, into South Asia and the Middle East, and on to Europe. This historical and cultural background is followed by over 80 recipes showcasing a wide range of spices and demonstrating how to use them to deliver layers of flavour.
The book is a visual feast, filled with the most wonderful illustrations. The inside covers show a map of ancient routes by which ingredients have been transported around the world, created by artist Marcela Restrepo. The same map features again on pages 42 and 43, overlaid with the panels for fifteen spice blends, listing their names and ingredients.
And as you’d expect, beautiful photographs of spices and finished dishes also abound.
The Introductory chapters are a joy to read for a history nerd like me – a core module in my French and History degree (many decades ago) covered the era of European colonisation with a focus on global trade; indeed Pete still harbours indignant memories of typing up and printing my sliced and sellotaped-back-together scraps of a handwritten essay on Chinoiserie – hey, he did volunteer!
First, we learn ‘How spice changed the world‘. Ford doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities that went hand in hand with global trade for many centuries. She points out that “spice’s legacy is sweeter than it’s history. The saga is eventually one of greed, monopolies, empire and colonisation. After all, fortunes were made, blood spilt, maps redrawn and the New World discovered all because of a desire for spice“. But the history she shares starts far before that era, along the ancient silk road and other routes that have been travelled and traded along for millennia. We learn that trade was largely peaceful for thousands of years under the Malays, Chinese, Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Jews and Indians but turned into something far uglier when Europeans started seizing control in the 15th century. A key message within these pages is that “cooking with spice cannot be neutral because of the weight of history, collaboration, domination, mysticism, social status and desire rooted in every cardamom pod and blade of mace.” The tales of how spices and other ingredients spread around the world can often be overly romanticised, especially in European tellings that are sanitised of the violence that was a central part of the story, so Ford’s is a refreshing account.
Next, in ‘Cultural diffusion along the spice routes‘, Ford looks more closely at the routes travelled by individual spices and the people that traded them; spices didn’t travel alone and as the traders who carried them migrated and settled in new places, cooking techniques and dishes were “assimilated, adapted, refined and reinvented over and over” in ways that forever changed the cuisines of the world. There was a long and slow mingling of methods, ideas, flavours, and dishes between Asia and Europe, East and West.
‘Golden nutmegs: the rise & fall of spicy excess‘ looks at how spices have been treasured throughout history, used not only in food and drink but also as currency, in embalming and burial rites, for aromatic perfumes, as offerings to gods, and firmly embedded into folklore and cultures. Nutmeg is the hero of this story, its history from the east of Indonesia to China and on to India started at least 300 years BC, and by the 14th century it had reached England. The coveted spice travelled across the seas by local outrigger boats, Chinese junks, and Arab dhows, over land on Middle Eastern caravans, and back on ships once again to cross the Mediterranean to Italy and the Iberian Peninsula, from where it was sent onward across the rest of Europe.
Spices, by the time they reached Western Europe and England were hugely expensive, and mainly the reserve of the very wealthy, who relished spices for their scarcity and the resulting display of status they provided – once a spice became more commonplace, novelty-driven nobility moved on to the next new thing. There were high and low periods for this international trade in spices – bustling and profitable in the Roman era, it virtually came to a halt in Western Europe for the thousand years after Rome fell, returning only in the High Middle Ages when European nations reached their economic and cultural height. Ford creates fascinating glimpses into the banquets of Rome, the feasts and celebrations of European courts, and the rises and falls of global trade.
In ‘Cooking with spice‘ we start by taking a step back to define what spices are, from the varying perspectives of botanists (who talk about spices as parts of plants, and also focus on the inherent chemical compounds that provide key aromas and flavours), historians (who look at man’s mastery of geography and trade, and of the role of spices in culture, symbolism and mythology), and traders (for whom spices are simply a commodity). Ford runs us through spice anatomy, listing spices that are roots and rhizomes, leaves, flowers, pods, barks, resins, fruits and seeds before sharing a ‘Starter spice library‘ that describes 29 spices, and a section for ‘Expanding your collection‘ which adds 30 more. There is a side passage on ‘The lost spices‘ that relates the tale of spices that were once hugely popular but are now all but forgotten or have vanished entirely.
‘Spice skills‘ gives guidance on choosing and storing, toasting, tempering, infusing, and smoking spices. ‘Ground spices‘ shares advice on grinding and blending, fresh spice pastes, rubs and marinades, and finishing spices. We learn how to combine spices and layer flavours to bring different flavour profiles to a dish – sweetness, fragrance, heat, pungency, sourness, earthiness. Ford groups spices by their “key personalities“, but reminds us that many have other nuances to their overall flavours and aromas. After the personality groups come flavour wheels for 12 core spices including nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, lemongrass and coriander. In ‘Spice palettes: a journey of flavour“, Ford lists by country or region the core flavour profiles and signature spices that feature in each cuisine, and next is that beautiful map showcasing spice blends across North Africa, the Middle East, and South, East and South East Asia.
Recipes are divided into chapters that each cover either one spice or a small grouping. ‘The first spice‘ covers ginger; ‘Black gold‘ features the family of peppercorns; ‘Fragrant and floral‘ is about “petals, barks and other delights“; ‘The fiery import‘ focuses on chillies; ‘Lime leaves and lemongrass‘ shares a range of fresh spice pastes; ‘Earthy notes‘ features cumin and coriander; and ‘Spice crescendo‘ talks about “heady flavours and complex blends“. At the beginning of each is an introduction to the featured spice(s) that gives additional history, and an overview of how it is used.
Chapters are prefaced with a glorious tiger artwork featuring around it the spices covered in that chapter. I adore these and would happily hang them on my walls!
Interspersed with the recipes are essays about ‘The kebab empire‘, ‘Layers of spice and rice‘, ‘Curry and conquerors‘, and ‘Redrawing the world‘. For those of you who love food writing as much as I do, these are a delight.
At the end of the book you’ll find ‘Spice miscellany‘ (which shares a double page spread of fascinatingfacts about spices, from how they were named to birds that make their nests from cinnamon and cassia to spice-related incidents from history). The ‘Timeline‘ spreads across six pages, starting at around 50,000 BC and ending in the 21st century AD, and pin-pointing key periods and occurrences throughout the history of spice. There’s also a suggested reading list for further information and a satisfyingly comprehensive index (that lists recipes not only by spice but by an extensive range of other ingredients).
What about the recipes themselves? There are so many that appeal including Burmese Ginger Salad, Egg and Bacon Rougaille, Silken Tofu with Gingered Soy Sauce, Keralan Black Pepper Chicken, Hot and Tingly Hand-Pulled Noodles, Nutmeg and Peppered Pork, Royal Saffron Paneer, Cashew Cream Chicken, Venetian Chicken with Almond Milk and Dates, Red-Cooked Duck Breasts, Coal-Smoked Biryani, Crunchy Greens with Roasted Chilli Jeow, Steamed Egg Custard with Crispy Chilli Oil, Pork Shoulder Vindaloo, Crunchy Tangy Vietnamese Salad, Stir-Fried Tofu with Lime Leaves, Massaman Beef Curry, Spiced Beef Martabak, The Sheik of Stuffed Vegetables, and Griddled Pita Stuffed with Sumac-spiced Meat. As you can see, recipes hail from across the world – usually I’m drawn more to books that focus on the food of a single country (or even on just one aspect of it) but in The Nutmeg Trail, the global framework of the recipes makes complete sense against content that explains how spices have travelled around the world and the ways in which they feature in different cuisines.
We’ve made three recipes from the book thus far and adored all three, having already made one a second time.
Green Coriander & Yoghurt Fish is a quick and simple dish to make, and coriander is the star of the show; succulent pieces of firm white fish (we’ve made it with cod and pollock) sit in a beautiful green sauce of yoghurt and tomato flavoured with coriander, ginger, garlic, chillies and lemon juice.
Mushroom Rendang is a wonderful surprise! I’ve always thought of rendang as a dish in which the complex flavours come from cooking meat slowly in a coconut-based sauce until the coconut reduces to a caramel-richness and the meat becomes beautifully tender. But this relatively quick mushroom version turns my (limited) understanding on its head. Here, the coconut milk is cooked for just 20 minutes – enough to bring out the coveted caramelised flavour notes but ensuring that some of the sauce remains – in a style known in Indonesia as kalio or wet rendang.
Garlic Clove Curry is an even bigger revelation! Who would ever have thought to make whole cloves of garlic the main ingredient in a curry? The Sri Lankans is who and this is an absolute stonker of a dish. Despite the relatively short cooking time, the garlic cloves become sweet and tender, contrasting with the savoury curry of onion, coconut milk and spices. We loved this one so much we asked for special permission to share it (instead of one of the shortlist of recipes offered by the publisher) and they generously agreed!
As you’d expect given the content thus far, recipe introductions share lots of detail about the dish, including where it originated and its original language name. Following the ingredients list and method is an ‘Eat with’ section that gives suggestions on what to serve with the dish; in some cases these contain mini recipes such as the Mint sambal to have with the Garlic Clove Curry. Most (but not all) recipes have accompanying photographs; simply but colourfully styled, these are highly beguiling.
An aspect I love about The Nutmeg Trail is the way Ford narrates the complex stories of spices and their migration around the world without shying away from the human stories that were part and parcel of that movement. “The story of food can sometimes be the story of humanity, and nowhere does that seem more true than in the case of the spice routes.” The depth of learning I took from this book is enormous, all of the information presented in a richly descriptive, engaging and thought-provoking style. The book is also a treasure trove of really delicious recipes that are easy to make and a joy to eat.
Recipes from The Nutmeg Trail
We have permission from Murdoch Books to share some recipes with you from the book:
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Kavey Eats was provided with a review copy of The Nutmeg Trail by Eleanor Ford from publisher Murdoch Books. Photography by Ola O. Smit.