A few passes over a spice grater and nutmeg releases an irresistibly warm and sweet aroma that is perfect for cakes, pies, and spirited drinks. While nutmeg—and its sibling spice, mace—often remind us of snowy window panes, holiday desserts, and cozy beverages by the fireplace, its origins are tropical and tumultuous.
Where Does Nutmeg Grow?
Nutmeg is the seed of the evergreen tree, Myristica fragrans. The inner seed is enveloped by a bright red aril known by spice traders as mace. If you stroll past a nutmeg tree on a sunny beach, you may spot the yellow, peach-like fruits drooping high in the branches. When the fruits are ripe, they split open revealing the crimson mace aril, signaling the spices are ready for harvest and curing.
Nutmeg trees grow best on tropical, humid islands with sandy soil. The Spice House’s premium nutmeg and mace come from the Caribbean island of Grenada, where it is still harvested by hand. Skilled workers delicately remove the crimson veil of mace from the nut, and dry it in the sun for up to two weeks. As mace cures, its color often transitions from a bright red to a yellow-orange. The nutmegs are set on drying racks for up to two months before another layer of shell is removed and the precious nutmeg is finally exposed.
Freshly ground nutmeg has an intensely perfumed aroma that is sweet, nutty, spicy, and faintly reminiscent of mint or eucalyptus, similar to the profiles of cardamom or pine. Nutmeg is best when ground fresh from whole seeds, however The Spice House offers freshly ground nutmeg for your convenience as well.
Mace’s flavor and aroma differ slightly from nutmeg as its profile tends to be sharper and less sweet. The essential oils of the two spices have different chemical compositions and noticeably different flavors even though they come from the same plant. This is similar to how an orange peel will taste and smell different than the flesh.
Nutmeg trees are native to the Banda Islands, tiny volcanic archipelago situated 250 miles east of Indonesia. For over a thousand years, these specks of land were the only source of nutmeg and mace in the world. The best nutmegs for cooking are about an inch long, but for most of written history nutmeg resembled a soccer ball that was kicked around by Arab, Portuguese, French, English, and Dutch spice traders.
A Brief Nutmeg Timeline
Sixth Century A.D. Arab spice traders bring mace and nutmeg to Constantinople. These early spice traders shrouded their spices in misinformation and spice lore, charging high prices as a result. By the end of the 12th century, most wealthy and elite Europeans had tried these exotic spices and fell madly in love with them.
1512 Portuguese explorers ‘discover’ the source of nutmeg and establish themselves on and around the Banda islands, stocking up on mace, nutmeg, and cloves. This breakthrough makes mace and nutmeg more available and affordable in Europe.
Early 1600’s The Dutch East India Trading Company seizes control over all the Banda islands except the island Rhun, which was claimed by the English. The Dutch ferociously controlled the overwhelming majority of the nutmeg trade, destroying any plantations outside the Bandas and enforcing their monopoly by death penalty.
1667 The Dutch East India Trading Company officially trades the island of Manhattan (a fur trapping colony at the time) to the English for the Bandanese island of Rhun, solidifying their monopoly on nutmeg and mace.
1770 French spice traders successfully smuggle nutmeg trees to the island colony of Mauritius, inciting the downfall of the Dutch nutmeg monopoly. This is done by none other than Pierre Poivre (anglicized and Peter Pepper), a famous French botanist who introduced many spice plants to other French colonies.
1843 Nutmeg is introduced to Grenada by English merchants, eventually becoming the most successful producer of nutmeg and mace in the West Indies. As of 2019 Grenada is the world’s second largest nutmeg producer after Indonesia. Grenada’s flag even depicts a nutmeg fruit.
How To Use Nutmeg
As with most spices, nutmeg should be stored in a cool, dry place away from light. A whole nutmeg can keep for years or even decades, but should be used immediately once it is ground. Pre-ground nutmeg will stay flavorful up to nine months when stored properly. (We recommend a glass jar.) A classic microplane grater is one of the best ways to grind nutmeg at home, and this tool can also be used to grate cinnamon sticks, citrus zest, and hard cheeses. When grating your own fresh nutmeg, use half of the recommended amount called for in a recipe.
In the United States, nutmeg is commonly used for sweet pastries and cocktails. Pumpkin Spice is incomplete without nutmeg as is any apple or pumpkin pie recipe. Classic old-fashioned cake donuts are principally spiced with nutmeg or mace. Nutmeg pairs well with savory dishes too. Pork roasts, duck breast, creamed spinach, stewed lamb, bratwurst, barbecue rubs, pasta sauces, cream sauces, and even mac n’ cheese are frequently spiced with nutmeg.
As a baking spice, nutmeg is often found alongside cinnamon, cloves, anise, allspice, cardamom, and ginger. In savory situations, nutmeg is commonly blended with cumin, black pepper, coriander, sage, thyme, chile peppers, mustard seed, and turmeric.
Sage pairs especially well with nutmeg, as showcased by our Bronzeville Rib Rub. Cheeses also pair well with nutmeg, parmesan being a standout example. Since pumpkins, squash, and nutmeg are often synonymous with each other, the following recipe takes these flavors and shifts your expectations in a deliciously savory way. This pasta dish can be a meal on its own, but could be prepared with scallops, pork, or mushrooms.
If you have a favorite recipe that calls for nutmeg, question about spices, or spicy anecdote, we want to know about it. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any of your questions, comments, recipes, or suggestions.
Article and recipe by Geoff Marshall, Spice House Staff Writer