Nutmeg is the seed of a fruit from an evergreen tree Myristica fragrans that grows in many hot-climate countries, but it hasn’t always been that way. At one time it was only available from the central Spice Islands of Indonesia. Nutmeg has been around at least as far back as 300 B.C. It was first introduced to European markets by Venetian and Genoese merchants that had purchased it from Arab traders in Constantinople. Nutmeg soon become an essential luxury for wealthy Europeans, who could afford to carry their nutmegs in tiny silver graters to bring their own supply to the banquet table. During the seventeenth century, the prices where so extremely high because it was completely controlled by the Dutch East India Company. It wasn’t until much later, when the French smuggled seedling trees out of the area and planted them on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, that the Dutch monopoly was broken.
However it wasn’t just grab a couple of seedlings and your in business. The Nutmeg tree does not start to yield fruit until it is eight years old, reaching its peek at about 25 years old. It will continue to yield fruit for another sixty years so it was a good long term investment. The tree itself can grow to be sixty-five feet tall and yields a fruit that has been described as looking much like an apricot or peach. Inside the fruit is a pit, wrapped by a brown shell and the blades of mace. Crack it open and you get the inner nut which is the nutmeg. When harvested, the inner nut has to harden inside the outer pit. When hardened, they are removed from the outer shell by hand and dried in the sun for six to eight weeks. During this time they are turned by hand twice a day.
Nutmeg and Mace are often confused and some recipes list them as inner changeable, saying if you don’t have one, just use the other. Mace is actually like an outer skin protecting the nutmeg. It is removed from the nutmeg and processed separately. Nutmeg is slightly sweeter than mace but they both bring out the sweetness of vegetables, Nutmeg being better suited for desserts and delicate cream based sauces such as classic bechamel.
Nutmeg is a good source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, zinc and magnesium. Potassium helps control heart rate and blood pressure. It is also a rich sourse of the B-complex vitamins, plus vitamin C, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin A and many flavonoid anti-oxidants like beta-carotene and cryptoxanthin, essential for optimum health.
There is scientific support that nutmeg can be used as a food preservative and an antiseptic and it might help reduce inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
As a chef, my interests are in its uses with other foods. It is for more than just eggnog. Try grating a little on your next bowl of rice pudding or on top of your latte or cup of hot chocolate, and then think of it’s rich history as you enjoy the flavor.
You can purchase ground nutmeg but I prefer to grate whole fresh nutmeg for a much brighter taste. If you store the nuts , in a container, tightly covered, in a cool dark place, it will keep indefinitely. Purchased ground, it will lose its flavor rapidly.
Chefs Note: To test nutmeg, insert a darning needle into the center of the seed. If it is good a tiny drop of oil will seep out.
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