Nothing rings in the holiday season like a sprinkling of fresh grated nutmeg in a frothy glass of eggnog, in a gingerbread cake, in an apple strudel or in a pumpkin tort. Nutmeg has been coveted since antiquity for its enchanting properties, making it the object of a grizzly and greedy tug-of-war. Here’s the vice and the nice on this captivating spice.
Nutmeg from the tropical evergreen plant, native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia, is actually a combo spice. The fruit (or drupe) the size of an apricot is covered with orange lacy threadlike arils called mace. When the fruit ripens it exposes the hard oval kernel or the nutmeg seed. Both nutmeg and mace have sweet aromatic notes reminiscent of cinnamon and clove.
Royalty of the Spice World
The Roman writer Pliny had been singing the praises of nutmeg since the first century. Emperor Henry VI was so enamored with nutmeg’s aroma that he had the streets fumigated with the spicy perfume in preparation for his coronation.
Five centuries later, Arab merchants brought gifts of nutmeg to Constantinople. By the 14th century, nutmeg had been elevated to a luxury good status, only available to the affluent, a mere half a kilogram costing the equivalent of three sheep or a cow.
European nations were in a bloody power struggle to gain control of the nutmeg trade, the diamond of spices with enchanting culinary, aphrodisiacal, medicinal and hallucinogenic properties.
The Dutch became fierce aggressors in the fight, targeting nutmeg grown in the Banda Islands, aka the Spice Islands. In 1602, the Dutch signed a treaty with village chiefs to secure the monopoly, but the Bandanese, misunderstanding the agreement, continued to sell nutmeg to other traders. The Dutch waged war against the islanders deporting, enslaving and even massacring thousands of Bandanese to enforce the monopoly.
The Dutch also contended with the British who controlled Pulau Run, a small Banda island with a plethora of nutmeg. In 1667, the British agreed with the Dutch to exchange Run Island for another island, New Amsterdam, which they later renamed … Manhattan.
The Dutch lost control of the nutmeg monopoly around World War II, and today thanks to the British East India Company, nutmeg thrives in various parts of the world, including Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies and Grenada.
Nutmeg is loaded with essential oils and other phyto-goodies having anti-oxidant, anti-fungal and antidepressant properties, along with aiding digestion. The spice also provides a mother lode of valuable minerals and vitamins for fluid balance and bone and blood health such as, copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, zinc, along with B-complexes for stress management and vitamins C and A for an immune boosting oomph.
Nutmeg and its essential oils have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Indian homeopathics for nervous and digestive disorders, and to ease creaky arthritic joints, migraines, tooth-aches and to sweeten bad breath.
The Bad and the Ugly
Nutmeg is considered the LSD of the spice world as it contains an organic compound called myristicin that can cause hallucinations if consumed in large amounts. Known on the street as a “nutmeg high,” this is followed by horrendous gastrointestinal side effects. Standing advice: use in moderation (usually ¼- to ½- teaspoon).
Spice it up
Nutmeg is as equally divine in savory dishes as it is in sweet ones. Use it to dial up hot chocolate or mochas; apple ciders or mulled wines; warm wilted spinach salads; Alfredo and cheese sauces; soufflés; lentil and other Mid-eastern soups; Italian sausages; risottos; lasagnas; raviolis; pumpkin and butternut squash dishes; rice puddings; custards; apple pies; peach cobblers; spice cookies; scones, muffins and pancakes.
Whip up a Moroccan dry rub with a blend of nutmeg, mace, chili, cumin, rose petals, cinnamon and cardamom to jazz up chicken, lamb or wild-caught fish.
Cook’s tip: Where possible, buy whole nutmeg over ground because the former retains its sassy flavor much longer. Use a fine microplane to grate.
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