For me, the second last day of our trip is about one thing and one thing only: nutmeg. And if that sounds insane, then you’ve obviously never tasted fresh nutmeg grated over a piece of chocolate. Or read about the scent of nutmeg plantations wafting over the sea as 17th century sailors approached land. Earthy and fragrant, and all-consuming.
400 years ago nutmeg was a spice worth more than its weight in gold. Wars were fought over it. Its trade funded the Dutch colonisation of parts of Asia. And the Banda Islands in remote eastern Indonesia were at the epicentre of what someone (I can’t remember who) once memorably called a ‘doomed monopoly’. The English gave up their stake in the islands to the Dutch in exchange for Manhattan, then called New Amsterdam. It must have seemed like a reasonable deal at the time.
While Leroy, Solange and the kids are off snorkelling, I’ve lined up a local guide, Arif, to take me to a plantation on Pulau Banda Besar, the largest of the ten volcanic islands that make up the Bandas. The residents of Lonthoir, a town of about 2000 at the base of the hill, are either nutmeg farmers or fisherfolk, or both. The nutmeg is grown in the slightly cooler forest at the top of the hill. And joining the two are 400 steep concrete stairs to climb. Did I mention that it’s 31 degrees and really, really humid?
Thankfully it’s a whole lot cooler up here in the forest, the nutmeg trees partially shaded by huge old mahoganies. The women are wandering around with baskets, harvesting the nectarine-size fruit. There’s the fruit itself, used straight away or made into sweets (it doesn’t keep), then the brilliant red mace around the kernel (used as a spice mostly in savoury dishes), and finally the nutmeg in its hard outer shell. The aroma is almost otherworldly. I think I might stay here forever.