Nutmeg and Mace

Nutmeg and mace are two spices obtained from the same tree- Myristica frafrans the nutmeg tree. Nutmeg is the seed kernel inside the fruit of the nutmeg tree and mace is the lacy covering on the kernel. The nutmeg tree is a large evergreen native to the Moluccas (the Spice Islands). The tree thrives in tropical landscapes near the sea. Main producing countries today are Indonesia (East Indian Nutmeg) and Grenada (West Indian Nutmeg). Indonesian nutmegs are mainly exported to Europe and Asia, Grenada nutmeg is mostly exported to the USA.

The nutmeg seed is encased in a small yellow fruit. When the fruit is mature it splits in half to expose a bright red covering over the seed. Mace is the bright red lace encasing the brown nutmeg in irregular, fleshy lobes. After harvesting the net like covering is removed and dried in the sun. As it dries, it develops an aroma but loses its bright red color. Mace from the West Indies is yellowish brown in color while mace from East Indian nutmeg is orange red when dried. The yield of mace is much less than nutmeg. Under the red covering is the dark shiny nut which contains the oval shaped nutmeg seed. The hard seed is also dried until the nut rattles inside. Later it is crushed in a nut cracking machine to extract the nutmeg. Nutmegs are graded according to their size.

Other commercial products produced from the nutmeg tree include essential oils, extracted oleoresins, and nutmeg butter. The essential oil is extracted by steam distillation of ground nutmeg and is used in the perfumery and pharmaceutical industries. The pulp of the nutmeg fruit is tough, sour, and almost woody. In Indonesia it is used to make a jam with pleasant nutmeg aroma.

Nutmeg is usually sold without the mace or hard shell. It is sold both as a whole or ground, and is labeled as ‘East Indian’ or ‘West Indian’ indicating its source. Nutmeg has a delicate, warm, and sweet flavor. Nutmeg and mace are very aromatic spices, and should be used sparingly. Dried mace is easy to crumble with hand. Whole nutmeg keeps indefinitely and may be grated as necessary. Fresh-grated nutmeg and mace have more flavor and aroma than ground. When ground, they tend to lose flavor quickly. Store both mace and nutmeg away from sunlight in airtight containers.

The flavor of mace is similar to nutmeg; however it is lighter and a little more delicate. Mace is used in soups and sauces, various sweet and savory dishes and also wine mulling mixtures. Nutmeg has a more robust flavor and it is also used in a variety of sweet and savory recipes. In Western cuisines it is mainly used in cakes and stewed fruits and also to flavor Béchamel sauce.

The Dutch use it in cabbage, potato and other vegetables as well as to season meat, soups, stews and sauces. It is used to flavor Italian mortadella sausages and Scottish haggis. It is often included in the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout. In Arab countries and northern India nutmeg is used in preparing delicately flavored meat dishes. Nutmeg is an ingredient in certain varieties of Japanese curry powder. Mace and nutmeg may be substituted for each other in recipes. You will probably need a little less nutmeg than mace as its flavor is more full-bodied.

According to ancient Indian herbal medicine ayurveda, nutmeg is a warming spice that contributes the pungent, bitter and astringent tastes. It is used as a natural sleep aid taken in warm milk before bedtime. It is also believed to stimulate appetite and digestion. In south India babies are fed an herbal concoction before they are fed solid food. It is made by scraping nutmeg, kadukka (Terminalia chebula ) and a bitter tasting spice called vayambu (acorus calamus) on a stone with a few drops of water. It is then mixed with honey and fed to the baby to make its digestive system strong. It is also believed that this combination has a positive effect on mental development of the children.

Nutmeg was a costly spice during the Middle Ages. It was introduced to Europe by Arabs in the eleventh century during the profitable Indian Ocean trade. The Arabs were the exclusive importers of the spice to Europe up until Vasco de Gama reached the Moloccas and claimed the islands for Portugal. By the 17th century the trade was dominated by the Dutch. The demand for the spice skyrocketed in Europe. With production under their monopoly, the Dutch dictated the price of Nutmeg and it brought enormous profits to their coffers. In the eighteenth century the French successfully smuggled the seeds and broke the Dutch monopoly. In 1796 the British took control of the Moloccas and expanded nutmeg cultivation to other East Indian islands and then to the Caribbean. Nutmeg cultivation became very successful in Grenada.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN