The Nutmeg tree is native to the Spice Islands (the Moluccas), though it is now grown in the West Indies. It is an evergreen tree about 25 feet high (7.5 metres.) The tree won't bloom until it is about nine years old, when it produces male and female flowers, and then fruit. It will produce for about 75 years. The Nutmeg is the seed of the fruit. Mace is a lacy covering on the Nutmeg. The mace is removed and treated separately; the Nutmeg is then dried.
Nutmeg has a strong, warm aromatic taste. You can buy Nutmegs whole and grate up what you need as you need it, or buy it already ground. The purists will of course, inevitably, tell you that grinding it yourself is better -- their radar hones in on anything that involves one more extra step for you. For once they're right, though for another reason: whole Nutmegs have a much longer shelf-life, and will still be tasty and useful after the already ground stuff has turned to tasteless sawdust. That makes the whole ones a better buy.
In Middle-Eastern and South-Asian food, Nutmeg is often used in savoury dishes. In Western cooking, it has been reserved mostly for sweet dishes -- pies, puddings, cookies, spice cakes, etc. The biggest exception is Dutch cooking, which will use it a lot more for savoury recipes, perhaps owing to the time when it flowed freely through their ports (funny how that happens when you have a monopoly, hein?)
Grenada is now a large producer of Nutmeg. Grenada's Nutmeg groves were severely damaged by hurricanes in the fall of 2004.
After the fall of Rome, the direct trading routes were cut off. During the Dark Ages, Europe forgot about Nutmeg, though it was still being used in the 800s in the surviving half of the Roman Empire, centring in Constantinople.
Arab traders re-introduced Nutmeg to Western Europe by the 11th century. It was used at first in brewing beer to flavour the beer. The Arabs repeated the same tales they had told the Romans about where it came from. The Europeans of the Middle Ages were far more gullible than the Romans had been and believed them for the next few hundred years -- and even when they no longer believed them, didn't have the means to find out the truth.
By the 1512, the Portuguese had figured it out, and traced the origin of Nutmeg from India to the islands where it actually grew. They claimed a monopoly over the supply of the spice. They forbade live seeds or trees being exported. By 1602 the Dutch had elbowed the Portuguese out and monopolized the trade by continuing the ban on live seeds or trees. The Dutch went a step further and had the seeds soaked in lime before exporting them, to prevent them from being used to grow trees. The Dutch kept up the Portuguese penalty for exporting them live -- death.
In 1770, a man named Pierre Poivre was the administrator of the French colony of Mauritius, then known as Île de France. He managed to smuggle untreated Nutmeg trees and seedlings, as well as cloves, off the islands and back to Mauritius, where they were successfully propagated, which was the start of the end of the Dutch monopoly.
The British took over the Moluccas in 1796 and being the "nation of shopkeepers" that Napoleon would soon accuse them of being, believed in profit through volume and propagated the tree throughout the East Indies and brought it to the Caribbean, notably Grenada in the 1860s.
Literature & Lore
Most innovative Nutmeg tip spotted so far: Grated Nutmeg mixed with lard makes an excellent ointment for piles.
Pierre Poivre became immortalized in an English children's rhyme. Pierre translates to Peter in English; Poivre (pepper in French), translates to Piper in Latin. You can see where this is going. Yes, he was the Peter Piper who picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck is a quarter of a bushel. Green peppercorns used to be pickled to stop them from turning into black peppercorns. It's unclear, however, what peppercorns have to do with either Nutmeg or cloves, aside from their all being spices.
NutmegNutmeg Graters; Nutmeg
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