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article # 11

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by Giorgio Busetto
 
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NUTMEG GRATERS

Nutmeg trees grew everywhere on Pacific archipelago but only the Malukus offered these two spices, which grew nowhere else by some whim of nature,

nutmeg 
(myristica fragrans) There existed many subspecies in Indonesia, but nothing to rival the variety found here.
This fertile land became a scene of battles and destruction and expeditions, both official and unofficial, continued to increase.
There existed many subspecies in Indonesia, but nothing to rival the variety found here.
This fertile land became a scene of battles and destruction and expeditions, both official and unofficial, continued to increase.


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.

This turned out to be an effective and persuasive system since the Vereenigde Ostindische remained for over a century and a half the undisputed master of the two most expensive spices in the world: nutmegs and cloves.

From 1510 on, the Dutch were the masters of this archipelago (the Spice Islands), concentrating their efforts on the producing islands that were militarily defended.

The Dutch monopoly was broken by the skilled botanic Pierre Poivre, who in 1771 planted nutmegs in the Paris region obtaining by 1783 a production of these precious spices. Some year later the spice plants were growing also in the colonies of Americas.

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 Est Indian islands and then to the Caribbean. Nonetheless, the Dutch would hold onto their monopoly until the Second World War despite efforts of English and French.

J.C.Stossel's book about nutmeg, printed in 1704

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.
on the right:
'NUCIS MOSCATAE Curiosa Descriptio' by J.C Stossel, in the 1704 edition printed in Frankfurt
The systematic production of silver graters for nutmeg began in the late seventeenth century. A revolution in manners then gripped colonial America, as sophisticated Britons on both sides of the Atlantic began serving punch - a brew of rum or brandy, fruit juice, sugar, and water laced with grated nutmeg and sugar - and a nutmeg grater became an essential addition to the ' punch equipage '.

kitchen nutmeg grater of rectangular form with pierced top panel for hanging kitchen nutmeg grater of cylindrical shape with hoop handle In most cases were used 'kitchen' nutmeg graters of cylindrical or semi-circular form with hinged base, divided interior and the top recessed below the hoop handle. Other 'kitchen' nutmeg graters were of upright rectangular form and shaped top panel pierced for hanging.

 

However, small boxes suitable for carrying in the pocket, and used to contain nutmeg, were in use since the 18th century.

nutmeg grater with inner grate attached to the cover
The nutmeg grater was usually a small silver container fitted with an inner grate attached to the cover on the inside.
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.

nutmeg grater
barrel shaped
unscrewing 
at the center nutmeg grater
of rectangular form The most frequent shape was the rectangular form with hinged cover and base, but also the barrel shape unscrewing at the center and with a silver rimmed metal grater was highly popular.
Other popular items were octagonal, oval and cylindrical shaped nutmeg graters

nutmeg grater
of octagonal form nutmeg grater
of oval form cylindrical 
nutmeg 
grater

but also circular, egg, spade and urn shapes were widely used

circular 
nutmeg 
grater egg-shaped 
nutmeg grater spade-shaped
nutmeg grater nutmeg grater
of repousse urn-form
with scrolled foliate 
decoration
Nutmeg graters were decorated with geometric motifs, bands of foliage and rococo piercing and engraving.

nutmeg grater
with pierced
geometric motifs cylindrical  nutmeg grater
lightly engraved with 
two bands of foliage nutmeg grater
with rococo 
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.

nutmeg grater
with a cowrie shell
enclosed by 
silver straps
Usually this nutmeg graters had the straps with serrated leaf-tip edges and a scroll handle.
nutmeg grater
with a cowrie shell
enclosed by 
silver straps

There's also examples of Staffordshire enamel nutmeg graters.

Staffordshire enamel 
nutmeg grater

This is decorated with a blue background below white enamel, leaf floral, scroll and shell designs.

In other cases the grater had the shape of

nutmeg grater
in the form of 
a nutmeg

nutmeg (chased with foliage)
acorn-shaped 
nutmeg grater:
the cylindrical stem 
contains a corkscrewmace (the acorn-shaped top is fitted with grater, the cylindrical stem unscrewing to reveal an additional grater and corkscrew)
shallow boat form
nutneg grater
shallow boat with hinged grater-inset cover and hinged storage compartment (maybe originally intended as snuff or tobacco rasp)
pear-shaped
nutneg graternutmeg 
grater
pear and acorn.

As utilitarian objects nutmeg graters were used and abused and the rare surviving examples in excellent conditions are greatly researched by collectors. 

Giorgio Busetto - 2004 -
www.silvercollection.it