Real Food Encyclopedia | Nutmeg and Mace

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 spices. Columbus sailed the ocean blue in want of them. Trade routes were mapped to procure them. European countries battled to own them. In its time, the humble woody kernel that is nutmeg was the most influential of all.

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Fun Facts about Nutmeg and Mace:

  • Nutmeg is not a nut.
  • Nutmeg used to be so popular that many eaters wore or carried a nutmeg in a tiny, grate-equipped box that allowed them to shave a sprinkle of the spice on their daily dishes, like how we might add a few grinds of black pepper.
  • It takes five years for nutmeg trees to flower. Full bearing occurs after 15 years and the trees continue to bear fruit for about 50 years. A single mature tree, which grows to about 40 feet in height, produces up to 2,000 nutmegs per year.

What to Look for When Buying 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. Mace is sold in whole pieces, called blades. It is also sold ground.

Sustainability of Nutmeg and Mace

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 with pesticides. 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.

Labor Issues with Some Nutmeg and Mace

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 or other regulations to protect them. Some labels, such as “Fair Trade Certified,” ensure that workers are treated and compensated fairly for their effort. Look for Organic, Fair Trade nutmeg and mace to ensure that the spices were produced in a manner that is fair to workers and good for the environment.

Nutmeg and Mace Seasonality

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.

Nutmeg and Geography

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 in Granada, which is the second highest producer of the spice.

Nutmeg is native to the Banda islands, a very remote Indonesian archipelago. As tiny 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 the 1000s, you could find it in then Persia, now modern day Iran. By the 1300s, nutmeg was being sold in Germany at a high price point.

Seeking to corner the market on this nearly priceless spice, The Dutch East India Company invaded the Bandas in the early 1600s. They seized control of most of the islands, enslaved the native inhabitants and dominated most 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 sadistic methods 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.

Eating Nutmeg and Mace

Storing 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. Ground and whole mace will keep in a tightly closed container for three to four years.

Cooking with Nutmeg and Mace

Nutmeg is a natural pairing with cheese. Many pasta dishes, including traditional Italian Bolognese sauce and even macaroni and cheese, are elevated by an enthusiastic grating of the spice. Nutmeg 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.

Nutmeg and Mace Nutrition

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