Article by Professor Richard Mithen, HVN Chief Scientist

The HVN National Science Challenge has a portfolio of projects seeking to provide evidence for the nutritious quality of New Zealand food and beverage products, some of which are current valuable export products, such as kiwifruit and green-lipped mussels, others that are well-established crops of New Zealand, such as blackcurrants and kūmara, and some that are ‘emergent’, such as seaweeds and mamuku.

There is a growing interest in the native flora of Aotearoa New Zealand and how it may be used within food products that are both attractive to consumers and may confer health benefits. These species are widely regarded as taonga, and many have a long history of culinary, therapeutic and cultural value to Māori. Recently, HVN has been engaging with several Māori companies interested in kawakawa, also known as Piper excelsum.

This species is endemic – meaning that it is only found in Aotearoa New Zealand – but it is related to several other similar species that are also of considerable culinary and cultural importance found elsewhere, foremost of which is Piper nigrum, or black pepper. Both P.nigrum and P.excelsum contain the alkaloid piperine, which provides a ‘hot’ flavour. Kawakawa combines piperine with relatively high levels of a compound known as myristicin, which provides the delicious aroma and flavour of nutmeg, Myristica fragrans.

Black pepper and nutmeg have shaped the modern world. The demand and high value of these two spices, along with cloves, were the drivers behind the era of European exploration that started in the 15th century. While black pepper and nutmeg had been cultivated and traded for at least the last two thousand years, the demand for these spices in Europe grew rapidly during the middle ages. Nutmeg in particular commanded vast prices due to its popularity as protection from bubonic plague during that greatest of all global pandemics – the Black Death – that started in the mid 14th century and would be a major source of pestilence for the next 300 years. Medical practitioners would often wear a mask, carry a staff (to ensure ‘social distancing’) and wear a neck pouch of nutmeg providing an aroma of myristicin. It is debatable as to what effect, if any, the nutmeg had. While natural compounds within nutmeg have antimicrobial activity (bubonic plague is caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, not a coronavirus), it may be that the most useful function of nutmeg was to produce an aroma to cover up the foul odours of death and decay. The demand for nutmeg grew hugely – a truly ‘high-value product’. At this time, all nutmeg came from the ‘Spice Islands’ – a mysterious and secret location only known to a few Arab traders and the people who lived on those islands.

The importation of nutmeg to Europe was tightly controlled by Arab dealers through cities such as Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), Alexandra, Genoa and Venice. Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the flow of nutmeg and other spices into Europe became restricted, and this forced European nations to seek new trade routes to gain access to these spices. In 1497, the Portuguese king sent Vasco da Gama to find a sea route from Europe to India with the purpose of finding ‘Christians and spices’; the first step in establishing Portugal as a colonial power in South West and South East Africa (to control the sea routes) and Asia, and, in due course, the long and largely painful history of European global imperialism.

The location of the Spice islands – the source of nutmeg and cloves – remained a mystery to Europeans until 1512 when the Portuguese sailing further east identified the Spice Islands to be what we now known as the Banda islands, which are part of the Moluccas. The next two hundred years witnessed bloody conflict between the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English for control of these islands’, and, of course, with the Arab traders and the islands’ inhabitants. With the Portuguese and the Dutch controlling much of the now established route to the Spice Islands via the Cape of Good Hope, the English and Spanish sought alternative routes via the Americas, leading the English to explore much of the Eastern seaboard of North America, unsuccessful searches for both a North West and North East passage to the Pacific, and, in 1522, a Spanish expedition that completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, led, ironically, by the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan. The dominance of the Portuguese in the control of the Spice Islands eventually gave way to the Dutch, who by the early 1600s, had control of nine of the ten Banda Islands, the exception being the small remote island of Run which the English controlled, and over which these two nations fought for the next sixty years. Eventually they agreed a solution: the Dutch could have the Island of Run, and, in exchange, the English could have a fur trading port on the Eastern Seaboard of North America, by the name of Manhattan – the Dutch got nutmeg, and the English got The Big Apple…

The Dutch monopoly of the nutmeg trade continued well into the 18th century, but was eventually broken following the exploits of the Frenchman Pierre Poivre who smuggled nutmeg plants out of the Spice Islands to Mauritius where new plantations were established. Subsequently, the British established plantations in Singapore and Granada.

The huge prices that black pepper, cloves and especially nutmeg commanded in Europe drove the development of European seafaring technology and brought about the era of exploration. It led to the establishment of the British and Dutch East India Companies that were to have an impact on global trade for the next two hundred years. Without the economic driver of spices and the aroma of myristicin, the European nations would not have developed the technology to make long sea voyages, and Captain Cook would not have arrived in Aotearoa in 1769.

I would hope that Māori business large and small will be able to develop food products with plants such as kawakawa, and that, unlike the history of nutmeg and cloves, the benefits of these food products can be shared with the indigenous people of Aotearoa, in probably a diverse number of ways. The Waitangi Tribunal, a permanent commission of review of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, released its Ko Aotearoa Tēnei report in 2011 regarding the ‘Wai 262 claim’, in which it emphasised the principle that kaitiakitanga or guardianship of taonga species resides with Māori. While the release of Ko Aotearoa Tēnei is an important milestone, there is a long path yet to be trodden to achieve clarity on how ‘taonga species’, especially those without a history of use, can be both appropriately protected and used in new and exciting food products. In traversing these issues, HVN is proceeding cautiously, guided by the values and aspirations of our Māori business partners and with due consideration, care and respect for the biological diversity and cultural history of Aotearoa New Zealand.