What is Nutmeg?
The nutmeg tree is a large evergreen native to the Moluccas (the Spice Islands) and is now cultivated in the West Indies. It produces two spices — mace and nutmeg.
Nutmeg is the seed kernel inside the fruit and mace is the lacy covering (aril) on the kernel. The Arabs were the exclusive importers of the spice to Europe up until 1512, when Vasco de Gama reached the Moloccas and claimed the islands for Portugal. To preserve their new monopoly, the Portuguese (and from 1602, the Dutch) restricted the trees to the islands of Banda and Amboina. The Dutch were especially cautious, since the part of the fruit used as a spice is also the seed, so that anyone with the spice could propagate it. To protect against this, the Dutch bathed the seeds in lime, which would prevent them from growing. This plan was thwarted however, by fruit pigeons who carried the fruit to other islands, before it was harvested, scattering the seeds.
The Dutch sent out search and destroy crews to control the spread and when there was an abundant harvest, they even burned nutmeg to keep its supply under control. Despite these precautions, the French, led by Pierre Poivre (Peter Piper) smuggled nutmeg seeds and clove seedlings to start a plantation on the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa, near Madagascar.
In 1796 the British took over the Moloccas and spread the cultivation to other East Indian islands and then to the Caribbean. Nutmeg was so successful in Grenada it now calls itself the Nutmeg Island, designing its flag in the green, yellow and red colours of nutmeg and including a graphic image of nutmeg in one corner.
Nutmeg has long been lauded as possessing or imparting magical powers. A sixteenth century monk is on record as advising young men to carry vials of nutmeg oil and at the appropriate time, to anoint their genitals for virility that would see them through several days. Tucking a nutmeg into the left armpit before attending a social event was believed to attract admirers. Nutmegs were often used as amulets to protect against a wide variety of dangers and evils; from boils to rheumatism to broken bones and other misfortunes. In the Middle Ages carved wooden imitations were even sold in the streets. People carried nutmegs everywhere and many wore little graters made of silver, ivory or wood, often with a compartment for the nuts.
Nutmeg is not a nut and does not pose a risk to people with nut allegies. Allergy to nutmeg does occur, but occurs less frequently and usually less severely than nut allergies.
The nutmeg seed is encased in a mottled yellow, edible fruit, the approximate size and shape of a small peach. The fruit splits in half to reveal a net-like, bright red covering over the seed. This is the aril which is collected, dried and sold as mace. Under the aril is a dark shiny nut-like pit, and inside that is the oval shaped seed which is the nutmeg. Nutmegs are usually sold without the mace or hard shell. They are oval, about 25 mm (1 in) in length, lightly wrinkled and dark brown on the outside, lighter brown on the inside.
Nutmeg is sold whole or ground, and is labeled as ‘East Indian’ or ‘West Indian’ indicating its source. Whole nutmeg may be coated with lime to protect against insects and fungus, though this practice is giving way to other forms of fumigation.
Bouquet: sweet, aromatic and nutty
Flavour: Nutty, warm and slightly sweet
Hotness Scale: 1
Preparation and Storage
Whole nuts are preferable to ground nutmeg, as flavour deteriorates quickly. Whole nuts will keep indefinitely and can be grated as required with a nutmeg grater. Nutmeg is poisonous and should be used in moderation, a pinch or two is safe. Store both ground and whole nutmeg away from sunlight in airtight containers.
Cooking with Nutmeg
Nutmeg is usually associated with sweet, spicy dishes — pies, puddings, custards, cookies and spice cakes. It combines well with many cheeses, and is included in soufflés and cheese sauces. In soups it works with tomatoes, slit pea, chicken or black beans. It complements egg dishes and vegetables like cabbage, spinach, broccoli, beans onions and eggplant. It flavours Italian mortadella sausages, Scottish haggis and Middle Eastern lamb dishes. It is often included as part of the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout. It is indispensable to eggnog and numerous mulled wines and punches.
Substitute for Nutmeg
Ground clove, allspice, ginger, cinnamon or mace. Use half what the recipe calls for. Mace would be my first choice as it comes from the same plant and has a similar, though much harsher flavor. One whole nutmeg grated equals 2 to 3 teaspoons of ground nutmeg.
Health Benefits of Nutmeg
Used in small dosages nutmeg can reduce flatulence, aid digestion, improve the appetite and treat diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. Nutmeg’s flavour and fragrance come from oil of myristica, containing myristicin, a poisonous narcotic. Myristicin can cause hallucinations, vomiting, epileptic symptoms and large dosages can cause death. These effects will not be induced, however, even with generous culinary usage.
Plant Description and Cultivation
A large tropical evergreen growing on average to 12 m (40 ft) and reaching as high as 20 m (66 ft). The bark is a dark grey-green which produces a yellow juice which oxidizes to red. It is thickly branched with dense foliage with tough, dark green, oval leaves about 10 cm (4 in) long. The trees are dioecious, meaning it has separate male and female plants, both being required for fertilization. It has small, light yellow bell-shaped flowers. The pale yellow fruit is a drupe, grooved like an apricot, splitting along the groove when ripe to expel the seed.
It prefers the rich volcanic soils and hot, humid conditions of the tropics. Nutmegs are propagated by seeds in nursery beds and after about six months they are transplanted to the plantation. It takes five years for the trees to flower, so that the sex can be determined and the males can be thinned out, leaving the optimum situation of one male for every ten females.
Full bearing occurs after 15 years and the trees continue to bear fruit for about fifty years. A single mature tree produces up to 2,000 nutmegs per year. The fruit is often collected with a long pole with a basket attached (resembling a lacrosse stick), to pick the fruit from this trees. In Indonesia this is called a gai gai.
When the fruit is harvested the seed is removed, then the mace from the seed. The mace is flattened between boards and the seeds dried until they rattle, when they are shelled.
French: noix muscade
Italian: noce moscata
Spanish nuez moscada
Indian: jaiphal(l), jaiphul, taiphal, taipmal
Indonesian: pala Malay: buah pala