Nutmeg, and Nutmeg Graters
A nutmeg grater, or nutmeg rasp, is a device used to grate a nutmeg seed. Okay, simple enough, but why were they designed so fancy? And what was the big deal about nutmeg anyway?
A common spice today, nutmeg was once a luxury. The Myristica fragrans tree from which the seed is taken originated on a tiny volcanic atoll in the East Indies, known as the Banda Islands and known today as a part of the Indonesian cluster of islands. Nutmeg was known in medieval Venice, but it wasn’t until the early 16th century that Portuguese and Dutch traders made it more widely available throughout western Europe. Nevertheless, the rarity of the little nuts and the peril of securing them made nutmeg a costly status-spice for centuries.
The scarcity undoubtedly led to the spice’s mystical attributes of curing nearly any ailment. 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.“
Nutmeg purely ground and consumed in large amounts has a slightly hallucinogenic effect. This may be one reason why sprinkling it into alcoholic beverages became common. In the late 17th century, adding a dash of freshly ground nutmeg onto the shimmering surface of a glass of punch became fashionable for gentlemen of high society. This brand of “punch” was not the children’s party variety, by the way. Decidedly alcoholic, one’s recipe for punch was a closely held secret, but no matter the varied ingredients, topping it off with a sprinkling or two of nutmeg made it better. So much so that wealthy gentlemen considered it a necessity to carry these precious seeds in their pockets, just in case a drink was offered. That meant needing a way to grate them, since freshness was the key, and as with just about everything else, making graters of fine materials and ornately designed was an additional sign of money to spare.
Nutmeg graters are normally metal, cylindrical or half-cylindrical, with a compartment for storing the nutmeg seed. The surface is perforated with small rasped holes to grate the seed. Sized to fit comfortably into a jacket or waistcoat pocket. To be fair, nutmeg wasn’t only added to spirited drinks. The sweet, aromatic spice has always been a tasty enhancement in many dishes. Impressing a pretty lady or pleasing a loving wife by gallantly “spicing” her soup was a smooth move sure to earn a gentleman a nice reward. Guy’s gotta do whatever he can, right?