Nutmeg grows on a tall evergreen tree native to the Indonesian Banda Islands. The Portuguese first found it in the 1500’s, but the Dutch soon monopolized the nutmeg trade, displacing the natives and working the plantations with indentured slaves and convicts.
Today nutmeg grows throughout Indonesia, Madagascar, Grenada, and the Caribbean. The tree has long, thin leaves and tiny yellow flowers, similar to a peach tree. The fruit itself looks like a fig as it buds and a funny round pear when it’s ripe. The juicy pulp hides a pit surrounded by a red fleshy net, or mace. Beneath the mace is a pit with a hard exterior shell. Inside the shell is the nutmeg. It is soft when first removed, but becomes rock hard when dried in the sun. Mace is also dried in the sun, and the two are packaged and sold separately.
Historically nutmeg was used as a mild sedative, and it’s a common belief that taking large quantities will produce a hallucinogenic effect. I had a chef once who always carried a nutmeg in his pocket. He was suspicious.
Nutmeg and mace share a similar flavor when ground. Mace is a bit stronger than the sweet, spicy nutmeg. Both are available whole and ground, but the flavor of the ground versions tends to dissipate rapidly. Special nutmeg graters are available for gadget-lovers, and they greatly extend the life of nuts. You can also use a fine-holed parmesan cheese grater in a pinch.
A grated nut will seal itself up after use, and very little of the flavorful oil will dissipate through the wound. Mace is equally long-lasting, although a bit more difficult to grind. I find that a mortar and some muscle work best for small amounts. Grind larger amounts of mace and crushed hole nutmeg nuts in a coffee grinder.
Nutmeg is commonly thought of as a sweet spice, but it’s used in all sorts of savory recipes, too. French cuisine especially uses nutmeg in starch, grain, egg, and cheese dishes for just the right balance.
Whole and ground nutmeg is widely available in markets across the globe.