Nutmeg, spice of life in Matelot

Matelot nutmeg farmer John Lewis reaches for a fruit on the nutmeg tree. The fruit splits open and the seeds are dried to dry to produce the beloved spice. - Photo by Angelo Marcelle
Matelot nutmeg farmer John Lewis reaches for a fruit on the nutmeg tree. The fruit splits open and the seeds are dried to dry to produce the beloved spice. - Photo by Angelo Marcelle

When you think of nutmeg production in the Caribbean, it isn’t uncommon that the first place you think about is Grenada.

But did you know that the spice is also grown in a village along Trinidad’s northeast coast? Matelot, which is French for sailor, is known for its scenic landscape and abundant fishing.

However, the village also has a thriving agriculture sector with nutmeg being one of the mainstay crops.

On a recent visit, Business Day met with 56-year-old nutmeg farmer John Lewis to learn more about nutmeg production. For the past ten years, Lewis has grown nutmeg on approximately one and a half acres of land. To supplement what he grows, he often buys the spice from other growers in the village.

Matelot nutmeg farmer John Lewis sifts dried seeds. - Photo by Angelo Marcelle

At the time we met him, Lewis was preparing about 150 pounds of nutmeg to be dried for sale.

“I have at least 20 nutmeg trees and I buy...nutmeg from estates around the community. I carry most of my nutmeg into Port of Spain,” said Lewis.

Although he's an emergency technician with the Eastern Regional Health Authority, Lewis produces nutmeg as a source of extra income. He also has a passion for it.

Growing nutmeg isn’t simple.

Firstly, there must be a male tree planted next to a female tree. The female tree, which is the flowering tree, will not bear the fruit from which the nutmeg seed is obtained if a male tree isn’t nearby.

The fruit is allowed to mature and split open, and the nutmeg seed will fall to the ground. The seeds are collected and the mace – the red coating around the seed – is removed. The seeds are then dried, giving us nutmeg as we know it. The mace is also sold and used for a variety of purposes.

Dried nutmeg. - Photo by Angelo Marcelle

But, Lewis explained, nutmeg seeds don’t always drop in abundance. Throughout the year, nutmeg trees produce seeds at high and low rates. For example, Lewis collects most of his nutmeg seeds in December and January. His harvest is smaller from February to May.

Praedial larceny is a major challenge nutmeg farmers face and, according to Lewis, it has been difficult to effectively deal with the issue.

The farmers also complain about inadequate infrastructure. Lewis said access roads to estates in the community have not been properly maintained which has led, in some cases, to estates being totally abandoned.

“The access roads to the nutmeg estates are not being properly maintained. Years upon years we have been complaining. People have been complaining about access roads here and nobody seems to take agriculture here seriously.”

Some farmers don't have proper land deeds and are not regularised, therefore they cannot register for a farmer’s badge.

Without proper regularisation, farmers are not able to seek government support for their activities which could be beneficial to boosting agriculture in the village.

Lewis intends to continue farming and is getting his 22-year-old son involved. His son recently started raring livestock and is caring for a few pigs.

Matelot nutmeg farmer John Lewis shows pigs his son recently began raising. Lewis also grows plantain and other crop. - Photo by Angelo Marcelle

“In Matelot, it’s quite easy to live because you can eat a plantain and go on the bay to get fish. So, in terms of us (in Matelot) feeding ourselves, we can be about 60 to 70 per cent assured about that,” Lewis said. He also grows plantain, cocoa, and short-term crops.

Calling on the Agriculture Ministry to provide greater support for agriculture in the village, Lewis said this move can not only be beneficial to the village but also the entire country.

He would like to see the implementation of skills training programmes in the village to teach young people about agriculture and fishing.

With there being a number of unemployed young people in the village, he thinks actively engaging them in activities like agriculture can provide them with a source of income. It would also stem the exodus of people out of the community to find jobs elsewhere, which he said has already been happening.

He said, “We need people from the ministry to come in and support the small farmers here (in the village). Government have to pay more emphasis on the small farmers because we are the people who can build this country. They always say that a country that can feed itself will be a wealthy country. We must be able to feed ourselves.”


"Nutmeg, spice of life in Matelot"

More in this section