I’m not sure how it happened, but 2007 marked the Nutmeg Renaissance.
[By “Salty Cod” – Note: this article is fictional. A joke. Not serious. We thought it would be obvious, but we were wrong. Thus, this disclaimer. Proceed with caution. Read with care.]
No one knows precisely why, but nutmeg became the hot ingredient last year, a triumph it hasn’t enjoyed for several centuries.
Each year has its trendy ingredient, dish or preparation. In 2003 the rave was over chipotlés. In 1999 everything had roasted red peppers in it. 1996 was the year of the sun-dried tomato. There was no place you could go in 2000 that didn’t feature seared ahi tuna.*
*Interestingly, 2006 was an enormous coup for chocolate and the cacao bean. Unfortunately, along with the introduction of extremely high-quality single-origin chocolate, 2006 also had to be dubbed “The Year of Putting Funny Things Into Chocolate.” To mention blueberries, soy nuts, cardamom, lavender, and wasabi is only the beginning. Maple, ginseng, bacon and bleu cheese followed. When I see garlic, watermelon, and morel mushrooms in a chocolate bar, I plan a public spectacle of uncontrollable gagging. And when some distressed kitchen puts dehydrated beet greens in my hot chocolate or ladles a grapefruit infused chocolate sauce over a tomato, I may leave the planet.
Fennel pollen was briefly ascendant at the beginning of 2007, but its candidacy faltered with a rare instance of anaphylaxis at one of the new Batali-affiliated hot spots (that I’m not allowed to name). Nutmeg picked up quickly and has become the champion food of the year ever since Marc Antollonos, the celebrity chef at Reve, started putting it to a use so far outside its traditional roles in eggnog and apple pie that everyone else had to take notice. His nutmeg rubbed porterhouse is one of the best things I ate last year.
I feel safe saying that there may not be a single human being whose favorite flavor is nutmeg. It has always been on my list of ingredients that most commonly are used to ruin pies and cider through indiscriminate overuse. So it is a strange phenomenon when such a spice rockets into the trendy zone; rediscovered all at once, by nearly every chef vying for pseudo-celebrity, all over the country, for use in all kinds of novel ways.
Even before Iron Chef, there had always been a machismo among chefs to use a very difficult flavor to unusual and successful effect. But prior to Iron Chef and its Food Network kin, there wasn’t the fallout of thirty chefs all following suit with the same ingredient. Once something takes off, with emulators quickly upping the ante to bring out more twists and turns in each year’s hot ingredient, who am I to dispute that nutmeg’s time has come for dazzling national attention?
First, let’s visit some of the places nutmeg has just strolled a little past the boundaries of traditional Northern European use. As a segue from the chocolate craze, nutmeg appears in the Mayan Spice chocolate truffles from Truffleupagus, a Southeast Portland chocolatier. They combine chilies, nutmeg and cinnamon in their blend. Several other chocolatiers around the country have now done something similar.
The Mayan influence is also seen at Oaxaca Tiempo, presumably because the owners and everyone else working there are Mayan. I love the Diego Rivera style murals around the place and the overt politics the restaurant brings unashamedly to the table. A menu may be a strange place for a history lesson, but I don’t mind when restaurants want to spark conversation. The irony is that the Reed College graduates being served $18 entrées believe they are the revolutionaries in the place. But I like to think the unstated but unconcealed threat that one day your server will throw you down in bloody revolution adds something to the sparkle of the ice water he brings you today. Oaxaca Tiempo serves four traditional molés, one of which has a clear nutmeg presence along with hints of pine nut, banana, and mild chilies. Nutmeg in molé is not revolutionary. But the popularity of it is: Oaxaca Tiempo has a 90-minute wait for a table on weekend nights.
Allow me to list some of the more unusual ways nutmeg has touched my tongue this year.
Celestial Window has on its menu a smoked jalapeno and Dungeness crab salad drizzled with a nutmeg white balsamic vinaigrette. King Arthur Bakery introduced a new nutmeg rye, an interesting conversion from the traditional caraway seed. I enjoyed pear nutmeg smoothies that are served with Sunday brunch at Café Flor. The nutmeg port reduction over roasted figs and goat cheese is one of the more popular starters at Indigo. On a similar kick, roasted tomato dusted with nutmeg served with pecorino was a peculiar delight at Mountain Lodge.
Nutmeg was also a feature in several 2007 desserts. Nutmeg ice cream followed on the heels of the cinnamon ice cream trend of 2006. But Marian Chelsea, the new chef at Qiqi, configured a nutmeg orange sorbet with a shot of rum poured over it that is fantastic.
Finally, something that should have been invented years ago: nutmeg caramel. It was between layers of cake in a recipe from Susan Chas’ new book that must have sold quite well because three friends of mine have incorporated nutmeg caramel into various desserts they have served.
One of the more stunning examples of nutmeg’s resurgence is the nutmeg infused vodka at Bar Total (2005: Year of Infused Vodka). You can get it served on the rocks or in their hugely popular Bombzooka, which uses nutmeg vodka, sugar, rose petals and soda. It is also seen in a holiday drink, the PartyCrasher, where it is combined with Irish Cream. Since nutmeg is known to have mild psychoactive properties that are popular with the “legal highs” crowd (also known as the “we ran out of pot” crowd), I imagine there is a peculiar quirk to the drunkenness induced by these drinks, as well as the drinks themselves. If absinthe isn’t soon found at your local pub, look instead for nutmeg vodka martinis.
I was not the only convert to Antollonos’ daring culinary style at Reve. Nutmeg rubbed porterhouse surprised everyone this year. The rub includes nutmeg, and I’m guessing maybe some brown sugar and orange zest, but it isn’t at all like the Chinese brown sauce glooping all over little worms of beef you get at that place on the corner. No, Antollonos prepares a 22-ounce porterhouse, proud with its own flavor and served in the center of a huge plate. The dish only hints at the flavors in the rub, imparting it with nuanced tang, gentle sweetness, and the narcotic spiciness of the nutmeg. It is accompanied by a raw julienne of parsnip, carrot, and zucchini, and puréed yellow potato with chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms.
For any reader who isn’t already intrigued by nutmeg porterhouse, let me point out that we find it so natural to add black peppercorn to steak that we almost forget that it is a tropical Asian spice. Neither nutmegs nor peppercorns come from steak-eating parts of the globe. Peppercorn (Piper nigrum) and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) are not too distant cousins either, botanically speaking, as they both belong to the magnoliid clade of plants. And they both were at one time extremely valuable, so much so that they spurred a great deal of European colonial expansion.
Without going at length into the history of the spice trade, let me share one reason why the Nutmeg Renaissance may be of special interest to New Yorkers. It is within our common mythology that Manhattan Island was traded for a bunch of beads. A less known is that the whole City of New York was once traded for nutmeg. In fact, at the end of the second Anglo-Dutch war, England was given control of New Amsterdam in North America in exchange for Dutch control of the tropical island of Run, which was quite valuable at the time as the world’s largest producer of nutmeg.
Will nutmeg beef and nutmeg caramel stick around on menus for the next decade as seared tuna has? Or will they go the way of the Waldorf salad and bubble tea? We can predict food crazes no better than we can the stock market. There will be more strange trends, and 2008 will certainly bring its own set of surprises. When shark fin is so in vogue that you can get it on a bun at Coney Island, Jurassic salt is at the Taco Bell condiment bar, and taverns all across Nebraska serve monkfish liver sashimi, we will at least rest peacefully knowing this too shall pass. On the other hand, whoever thought the nation would want to say “chipotlé” for more than six months? At least nutmeg is easier to pronounce. Pass the nutmeg chips, man.
Where is Oaxaca Tiempo? ..grapefruit and nutmeg infused chocolate sauce over ginger ice cream, maybe???
Nice article. I would have said that 2007 was the Year of Pork Belly (which, by the way, tied into the tail end of the chocolate craze in the form of the Vosges bacon bar…)
To me, it seems like 2008 is shaping up to be the Year of Nettles.
Where are any of these places? It seems reasonable to me that if you’re writing for a site named “Portland Food and Drink.com” you would identify the city if it’s not Portland, and several of the places named don’t seem to be in Portland (if they are, they have zero web presence).
BONvivant…(ps i wonder if you’re the wine importer too? if so thanks for guillot broux) anyhow– nettles always seem to be popular this time of year, but their seasonability is so short they’ll be gone soon.
and as for nutmeg, pshaw! I’m not sure I buy it. I suppose anything as staple as nutmeg can be described as the ingredient of the year if you choose to expose them as such. That’s ALMOST like saying it’s the year of chervil, or the year of garlic…i mean can’t we reach a bit deeper than nutmeg?
“i did however enjoy the article all the same… thanks “Bacalao”!
I call bullshit.
Try Googling any of the places mentioned above and it seems none are in existence.
Has anyone REALLY seen Nutmeg have a surge in popularity? No.
I guess I don’t get the point of this so-called “food writing” unless it is a late April Fool’s Joke.
LadyConcierge I aggree….Nutmeg? I don’t see Nutmeg floating around everywhere? This post is bizarre.
Kevin Allman says
C’mon, folks – “Oaxaca Tiempo”? It’s Taco Time.
Your collective leg is being tugged, and hard.
In high school I once at an entire nutmeg berry in a feeble attempt to hallucinate.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Polloelastico, did it work?
We didn’t have whole berries but did eat a whole container of ground nutmeg in the same feeble attempt. No, it didn’t work. I couldn’t stand nutmeg for many, many years. It’s just been in the last year that I can eat it again. My brother told me that smoking banana peel didn’t work either, so I was spared that experience.
Yes, yes, this is fictional. It was never intended to be read otherwise. I sincerely appologize if anyone misunderstood. None of these restaurants exist, (I had thought that was obvious… sorry.) so they won’t show up on Google.
I submit this story solely for your reading pleasure.
As a writer, (and as an experimental cook, for that matter) I am familiar with having to create realities I would like to see if they don’t already exist for me to describe. To my knowledge, the dishes mentioned have been prepared nowhere except my own kitchen.
Since this is not a fiction-oriented site, I have no idea what a piece like this is doing here. It’s a big turn-off.
Not everyone can be turned on by everything. I’m sorry you don’t like it. While nearly all food writing is non-fictional, a fictional piece such as this IS “food writing.” Hopefully some readers will find value in it beyond the literal fact vs. non-fact of restaurants in Portland and their dishes – to amusement, possibility, and just the sheer love found in thinking about food.
[ A philosophical query this poses: If person A describes a taste to person B, person B is forced to imagine a taste experience based on the description. But if person A is imagining the taste to begin with, does that affect the quality of Person B’s experience of constructing a taste from description, (itself an act of imagination)?]
The difference is when I read fiction I know it is fiction. The story was presented as non fiction for the readers (no one had any reason to believe it was otherwise). Making the statement:
“If person A describes a taste to person B, person B is forced to imagine a taste experience based on the description. But if person A is imagining the taste to begin with, does that affect the quality of Person B’s experience of constructing a taste from description, (itself an act of imagination)?”
Come on… this discourse is between you and your navel and the rest of us don’t need to be in on the dialog. If you knew it was fiction… it should have been labeled as such.
Food Dude says
We can mix things up a bit, and try new things now and then, or we can go back to the old days and do two posts a week that are just by me. The latter seems pretty boring. I think ya’ll should relax! It’s just a silly post on a blog! I like the variety. If Salty Cod’s writing isn’t to your taste, don’t read the stuff he writes.
…and I will clearly label fiction and non-fiction pieces in the future. Meaning no disrespect, I’m just a bit of a goof sometimes.
While I quite enjoyed this piece both before and after I knew it to be fictional, I must echo whatthef’s confusion. In particular, I am completely mystefied (having read the piece twice now) as to what SaltyCod thought made it clear that it was fiction. It resembles in style, form, substance, etc. many other pieces of non-fictional food writing that I have read over the years, and the names of the restaurants, while none were recognizable to me, are all quite feasible and similar to the names of many actual restaurants, both in Portland and elsewhere. I have no problem with the idea of adding variety to the site, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that your readers are psychic.
Jason Wax says
Since I knew the restaurants mentioned here aren’t in Portland, I kept doubting everything the writer said and wondering what was going on. And I say that as someone who reads far too much food writing in every genre. This piece definitely should have been labeled as fictional, and so should any future fictional pieces. But with that said, I think it’s a great idea to include gastro. lit flights of fancy from time to time, and I’ll happily read them.
Food Dude says
Ok, we know. Some of you hate the piece. Get over it. It’s just a piece of writing. Tell us when you like something for a change. If you can’t get past this, move on to another site.