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 7.5 metres (25 feet high .) 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.
Grenada is now a large producer of nutmeg. Grenada’s nutmeg groves were severely damaged by hurricanes in the fall of 2004.
You can also use nutmeg along with or instead of pepper in savoury dishes such as quiches and other egg dishes, in sauces, in bean dishes, with sautéed cabbage or steamed broccoli.
Pierre Fornay, writing for the New York Times, suggests nutmeg for purées and cream sauces:
“THERE is one spice the mere thought of which evokes for me the greatest triumphs of France’s haute cuisine. It is nutmeg, a sweet, aromatic spice that comes mostly from the Caribbean or the Moluccas. It lends bouquet to a cream sauce and subtlety to a pate. It is nutmeg that elevates a puree of spinach or a mornay sauce.” Franey, Pierre. Kitchen Equipment: Nutmeg Grinders. New York: New York Times. 18 November 1981. Section C, page 2.
You can try mace, ginger, cinnamon or allspice.
1 whole nutmeg yields 2 teaspoons of grated nutmeg.
The Romans originally got nutmeg through the Arabs. No one in knew where it came from, as the Arabs wouldn’t tell them. In fact, the Arabs spun tall tales of it coming from mythological, dangerous lands. The Romans were pretty-hard nosed business people and didn’t fall for it: Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) wrote: “All these tales have been evidently invented for the purpose of enhancing the price of these commodities.” The Romans discovered that the source for the Arabs was in India, and they developed their own trading routes by sea, cutting the Arabs out of the middle (the Nutmeg didn’t actually grow in India, but traders brought it to there from the Moluccas Islands where it did grow).
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
There is a nutmeg on the flag of Grenada.
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.
|Franey, Pierre. Kitchen Equipment: Nutmeg Grinders. New York: New York Times. 18 November 1981. Section C, page 2.