Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Nutmeg and Mace

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The allure of spice can be seductive to the point of inspiration or destruction. If the yearly frenzy of pumpkin spice latte fanatics isn't proof enough, we can look to history for evidence: The craving of exotic flavors has changed every aspect of it. The course of trade, the cause of war, the lines of the map owe much of their trajectory to the pursuit of taste. Columbus sailed the ocean blue in want of it. Trade routes were mapped to procure it. European countries battled to own it. In its time, the humble woody kernel that is nutmeg was the most influential of all.

A Brief(-ish) History of Nutmeg and Mace

The story of nutmeg reads like a telenovela. It is one of colonialism, corporate control, murder and thievery. Nutmeg is native to the Banda islands, a very remote Indonesian archipelago. To find the place on a map is to zoom in and in... and in. Yet, as tiny and hidden as nutmeg's birthplace may be, its impact eventually swept up the most powerful nations in the world in a fight for its flavor. 

By the sixth century, nutmeg made its way off of its remote island to the key trade city Byzantium, later named Constantinople. In 1000 CE, you could find it in then Persia, now modern day Iran. By the 1300s, nutmeg was being sold in Germany at prices that would make a drug lord blush. 

Nutmeg's popularity was driven by its supposed power as both lure and cure. Ancient apothecaries believed it to be a powerful aphrodisiac and prescribed it, in ointment form, as an early Viagra. In larger doses, it was used to bring on a dreamlike state, sometimes accompanied by euphoria or hallucinations. Nutmeg was believed to be powerful enough to bring on menstruation and, in increased dosages, was used to induce abortion. During the middle ages, nutmeg was believed to ward off the plague. Plus, it tasted terrific! 

Seeking to corner the market on this nearly priceless spice, The Dutch East India Company (in stereotypical colonial swashbuckling fashion), invaded the Bandas in the early 1600s. They seized control of most of the islands, enslaved the native inhabitants and dominated the majority of the islands and the nutmeg trade. The spice-loving English made their move, seizing control of the remaining island, Run. The Dutch and English fought over Run for decades until they finally found a compromise. In their determination to have complete control over the world's nutmeg supply, The Dutch traded the tiny island of Run for another little island, modern day Manhattan. 

The Dutch took to extreme, and often cruel, measures to maintain their monopoly on the nutmeg trade. They tried to keep the location of the islands secret. They dipped every nutmeg in lime before export to render it sterile. Suspicion of growing or selling nutmeg by any Bandian native was punishable by death - a law that was enforced with such fervor that in the fifteen years that the Dutch occupied the islands, the population was reduced from 15,000 to 600. Their methods, however sadistic, proved profitable and the cost of nutmeg skyrocketed, bringing the company and its shareholders great wealth. 

Until 1769. That's the year that Pierre Poivre, a determined and intrepid French horticulturalist, snuck onto the well-guarded Banda islands and stole away with nutmegs and nutmeg trees. The French planted them on their island colony, Mauritius. The English followed with plantings in Asia and the Caribbean. The Dutch monopoly on the spice was broken. And while we can still taste the spice's origin story across the cuisines that once fought so hard to own it, the passion for this agricultural gem has moved on to other plants and their intoxicating benefits. 

Factual Nibbles

  • Connecticut is known as the "Nutmeg State" though there is debate as to why. Some claim that it is because in colonial times, its residents were shrewd enough salespeople to be able to sell nutmegs made of wood. Others believe it is because Southerners, new to the spice, didn't know nutmegs need to be grated to release their heady scent and flavor and accused the Yankees of selling them false goods. For whatever reason, the name stuck and residents of Connecticut are sometimes referred to as "Nutmeggers." 
  • Nutmeg is not a nut. 
  • Nutmeg used to be so popular that many eaters wore or carried one in a tiny, grate-equipped box that allowed them to shave a sprinkle of the spice on their daily dishes, similar to how we might add a few grinds of black pepper. 

Nutmeg Cultivation

The tree that produces nutmeg, and its byproduct, mace, prefers the rich volcanic soils and hot, humid conditions of the tropics. Nutmeg is the seed of an evergreen tree, Myristica fragrans, native to Indonesia. That area still dominates world production. However, nutmeg is now also cultivated in Asia and the Caribbean, particularly Granada, which is the second highest producer of the spice. 

It takes five years for the trees to flower. 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 nutmeg and mace are harvested in Indonesia from June to August, which coincides with the monsoon season, the wettest time of the year. The fruit must be carefully handled so that it doesn't spend time on the ground and is dried immediately and completely to avoid contamination by pathogens, particularly Aflatoxin, a carcinogenic toxin produced by certain fungi that develops in mishandled spices and other foods. 

Environmental Impact of Nutmeg Growing

Nutmeg trees do not require fertilizers. The width of their canopy usually shades out competitive undergrowth so weeding or defoliation is not an ongoing concern. As they grow in tropical regions with regular rainfall, the trees are not typically irrigated. Nutmeg trees are naturally pest resistant so there is no need to treat them. Essentially, the seedlings are tended when they are very young and then the trees are left unmolested until harvest time. 

Spices, including nutmeg and mace, are often irradiated to eliminate contaminating pathogens. The process has caused some concern for eaters who are opposed to using radiation as a means of sanitization. Critics also claim that the irradiation process negatively impacts the delicate oils that give spices their flavor and scent.

As in any form of agriculture, the health and welfare of workers is a concern, particularly in countries of the Global South that may not enforce environmental regulations to protect them. Some labels, such as "Fair Trade Certified," ensure that workers are treated and compensated fairly for their effort.

More About Nutmeg and Mace 

Myristica fragrans is a large tropical evergreen that grows to about forty feet in height. The bark is a dark grey-green. 

The nutmeg is the seed kernel of a fruit. The pulpy, yellow mottled fruit is edible and is sometimes cured in sugar and dried. The fruit splits in half when ripe, revealing the seed within. The seed is covered in the aril, a thin, bright red, leathery covering that is removed, pressed and dried for the spice mace. The nutmeg seed is dried over the course of weeks until it shrinks inside its shell. The shell is then cracked and the innermost kernel, the nutmeg we see on the spice rack, is removed. 

Nutmeg Nutrition and Effects on the Body  

Nutmeg is sometimes taken medicinally to reduce flatulence, aid digestion, improve the appetite and treat diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. 

The chemical myristicin present in nutmeg can induce intoxicating symptoms. It is taken to get high or induce hallucinations but requires the eater to consume two tablespoons or more to achieve such an affect. 

Although it can be poisonous if digested in any quantity, the small gratings and measurements called for in recipes can be enjoyed worry free.

What to Do with Nutmeg and Mace

Nutmeg is sold whole and ground but, because flavor deteriorates quickly, most cooks prefer to buy nutmeg whole and grate it as needed. Mace has a stronger, sharper nutmeg flavor and is sometimes used, in lesser quantities, if nutmeg is unavailable. 

Nutmeg is a natural pairing with cheese. Macaroni and cheese is elevated by an enthusiastic grating of the spice (see below). It is often used in deserts of all sorts, particularly in cooler months when its warming flavor and fragrance add a cozy note to baked goods. A cup of eggnog or traditional Barbadian rum punch would not be complete without a grating of nutmeg dusted on top. It is often included in the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout

How to Store Nutmeg and Mace

Whole nutmegs keep for five years in a sealed jar; two to three once the jar is opened. Ground nutmeg will lose its flavor much more quickly and is sometimes cut with inferior seeds, which have much less flavor. 

Mace is sold in whole pieces, called blades. Ground and whole mace will keep in a tightly closed container for three to four years. 

Recipe: Mac and Cheese with Nutmeg

Serves 6-8

Yes, it is a classic: A treat for kids and grown-ups alike. The nutmeg and mustard give it such a boost that you will never look at the blue box again. 

Ingredients:

1 pound pasta, such as penne or shells, cooked according to package directions

6 tablespoons butter, plus more for buttering casserole

½ cup flour

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

1 quart warm milk

12 ounces sharp cheese, such as cheddar, grated

1 nutmeg 

Method:

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 9x13-inch casserole dish.

While the pasta is boiling, make the sauce. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and stir until smooth and creamy looking but has not yet begun to color. Add the mustard, a generous teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper and whisk to combine. Slowly add the milk, a few dribbles at first, whisking all the while to prevent lumps. After all of the milk has been incorporated, remove from the heat. Add the cheese one handful at a time, whisking until incorporated before adding more. Once all of the cheese has been added, grate at least ¼ and up to ¾ of the nutmeg into the sauce. Adjust seasoning - it should be slightly more assertive than you think; the addition of the bland pasta will subdue the flavor considerably. Add the pasta and stir to combine.

Transfer the sauced pasta to the prepared baking dish. Bake until bubbling and starting to brown on top. Rest for ten minutes before serving.