Banda Islands, Indonesia: Where European fought wars over common household spices

It sounds like a literary intrigue: I am on an Indonesian pirate ship in the middle of the Banda Sea to source the most coveted luxury in 17th-century Europe. I should add, sotto voce of course, that this blood-soaked commodity was so valuable that decades-long wars were fought over it. It was believed to cure madness and ward off the plague, the Arabs traded it as an aphrodisiac and activist minister Malcolm X used it to get high in prison: "stirred into a glass of cold water, a penny matchbox full … had the kick of three or four reefers". It is also thought to be one of the secret ingredients in Coca-Cola.

We have travelled to what feels like the edge of the world – a tiny cluster of islands remote even by Indonesian standards – to find this storied substance. For it is here – the Banda islands at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago – that for centuries was the only place in the world where Myristica fragrans grew.

The species is best known for two spices; nutmeg, made from its seed, and mace, made from its lacy crimson seed covering.

Global demand for these coveted condiments led to a brutal conflict between the Portuguese, Dutch and English for control of the Banda islands. So desperate were the Dutch to secure a monopoly in nutmeg and mace that one bloodthirsty merchant decided in 1621 to eliminate the local Bandanese population in a genocidal massacre.

Ultimately, the Dutch were the victors. In 1667 the British agreed to swap their last toehold – the minuscule island Run – for the swampy island of Manhattan, as part of the Treaty of Breda.

Time has marched on, however, and nutmeg, now grown in multiple countries including Grenada, Malaysia and India, has lost its mystique. These days it mostly makes an appearance at Christmas time, in eggnog and mince pies. As for the swampy island of Manhattan, it's often referred to as the greatest city in the world. The Banda islands' pivotal role in global economics has become a footnote in history.

Janet DeNeefe, restaurateur, author and the owner of the popular Casa Luna cooking school in Bali, has taken us back to the land that time forgot, on a themed cruise: Food as Medicine.

Our base for nine days of island hopping is the Kurabesi Explorer, a 28-metre teak Phinisi schooner. Phinisi were historically used by the seafaring Bugis, an ethnic group from South Sulawesi who were greatly feared as pirates. Our modern version, the Kurabesi Explorer, is decidedly more salubrious, with six airconditioned cabins with tiny private bathrooms, a TV lounge room and an office for editing the many photographs we all take.

We have a rough passage from Ambon, the capital of Maluku. Lying in my wooden cabin I listen to the Kurabesi Explorer creak like an old man as she courses through the swell. It's an extraordinary sound, as if every fibre in the vessel is being stretched.

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Once we reach the islands our days develop a pleasant rhythm. Shore excursions are punctuated by snorkelling, games of mahjong, reading and floating cooking classes on the top deck.

DeNeefe is a raconteur and her lessons on the healing properties of spices are peppered with anecdotes. She tells us cloves are used to treat toothache, pepper alleviates digestive problems, colds and constipation, ginger eases nausea, turmeric is said to have anti-cancer effects and nutmeg (besides changing global history) aids sleep.

"All these ingredients are believed to have medicinal powers in Indonesia – and they do," DeNeefe says. Western medicine is used as a last resort here.

Spices are also the foundation upon which the local cuisine is built: "If rice is the heart of Balinese cooking, then spices are its soul," DeNeefe writes in her memoir, Fragrant Rice.

Sipping on cans of Bintang beer, we learn to pound spices into fiery pastes and sambals, the Indonesian equivalent of pepper and salt. There are countless variations of these vibrant condiments but my favourite is sambal goreng (fried chilli seasoning): chillies fried in oil with crunchy shallots, garlic and shrimp paste.

We eat sambals with every meal. The seafood is sensational; grilled red snapper we buy at a quiet waterside market on Saparua Island, pounded fish satays grilled on lemon grass sticks, fish curry soup and barbecued squid. There is also a local vegetarian speciality I adore – eggplants stuffed with kenari (wild almond) sauce.

Janet is a gourmet but also a lover of literature, founding the Ubud Writers' Festival in 2004. "Spices are like language, the poetry of food, something you roll around your mouth like words," she riffs mid-cooking-class.

This cruise comes with a recommended reading list, including Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh's paean to spices In Meluku, East of Eden and Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Giles Milton's history of nutmeg that first piqued Janet's interest in the Banda islands.

We are a bookish bunch and there are more copies of Nathaniel's Nutmeg on board than passengers.

Our adventures echo (without the hardship) those of the eponymous Nathaniel Courthope, the English trader who defended the island of Run against the Dutch and launched the British Empire. One morning I am curled up on deck reading the prologue to Nathaniel's Nutmeg (one of the things I love about the Kurabesi Explorer is that it has a number of communal hang-outs but also nooks and crannies in which one can be utterly alone).

"The island can be smelled before it can be seen. From more than 10 miles out to sea a fragrance hangs in the air, and long before the bowler-hat mountain hoves into view you know you are nearing land," I read. I glance up and we are gliding toward this very island, Run, the volcanic atoll once exchanged for Manhattan. It is one of those breathtaking, meta moments. The emerald island, still thickly carpeted in Myristica fragrans, is as undisturbed and unworldly as it would have appeared to Nathaniel Courthope in 1616.

Run may have been the most talked about island in the world in the 17th century but today there are no cars, no internet and limited electricity.

Most islanders still farm nutmeg, which they dry on straw mats. They sell us a treacly jam and candied sweets that taste like crystallised ginger, made from the nutmeg fruit.

New York feels like a different planet; there is, however, a sly nod to the past – two guesthouses are named Manhattan I and II.

We meet the "king" of Run Island, Sabtu (Indonesian for Saturday, the day he was born). He leads us up narrow, winding steps, past rainbow-painted houses with tin roofs, a canary yellow mosque, televisions in wooden boxes on stilts, cats basking in the sun, coconut palms and giggling children. We pass through Myristica fragrans groves, overshadowed by kenari trees that protect the nutmeg from the sunshine and wind, to the ruins of the iron house, once used by the colonising powers to store nutmeg.

In Nathaniel Courthope's time, the only plant other than nutmeg that thrived was the sago palm, the pithy trunk of which could be boiled down into a "revolting sago porridge". Sago is still a staple food; I think of the hapless Courthope again when we visit Manipa Island and watch fronds of sago palm lathed into pulp, which is then squeezed into running water. The water flows into bamboo tanks, where the starch sinks and is formed into balls.

There is plenty of time for hedonism among the history. On our penultimate day we snorkel in the warm turquoise water that rings Molana, an impossibly beautiful private island with powdery white sand. The snorkelling has been different each day, I have seen turtles and a formation of six giant prehistoric-looking bumphead parrotfish. They weigh up to 46 kilograms and bump their alien-shaped bulbous heads against coral to break it into smaller, edible pieces. The coral reef around Molana Island gets deep quickly and black fish circle in the gloam like bats.

There are just two people staying in one of three bungalows on Molana (the island is uninhabited if there are no guests) and they give us the side-eye when we gatecrash their paradise.

We drink long necks of warm Bintang, float in the shallows and watch the shadows get longer and longer. As the sun sets on our spice odyssey, I daydream about how nutmeg changed the world and of a parallel universe where Manhattanites speak Dutch.

Jewel Topsfield travelled as a guest of Janet DeNeefe.

TRIP NOTES

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FLY

Garuda flies to Jakarta from Sydney and Melbourne, then an internal flight to Ambon on Garuda, Batik Air or Lion. See garuda.indonesia.com

CRUISE

A Spice Island Food as Medicine Cruise with Janet DeNeefe costs $4450 a person. It includes eight nights' accommodation, all meals, guides, cooking classes, snorkelling/water sports and park permits. Alcohol is not included. The trip begins and ends in Ambon and individual travel arrangements must be made to fly in and out of this city. The tour runs November 10 to 18, 2018. See casalunabali.com

See also: The 23 hidden highlights of south-east Asia

See also: Beyond Bali - Indonesia's undiscovered islands

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