Nutmeg, which was initially thought to have originated in India was first brought to Europe by Arabic traders in the 11th century, where it was used to flavor beer. It was not until the Portuguese sailed all the way to Indonesia in the 16th century that trade with nutmeg and its importance as a spice in Europe began in earnest.
A century later, the Dutch established a monopoly on the trade with nutmeg from the Banda Islands, the only place in the world where the trees grew at that time. However, the local population was unwilling to cooperate with the colonial masters, resulting in a near genocide of the island’s inhabitants at the hand of the Dutch.
The few surviving locals left for neighboring islands, and the Dutch actively settled Arabic and Chinese traders. The Dutch hugely profited from the nutmeg trade, as the spice was much sought after at the time in Europe, and given the Dutch East Indies Company’s monopoly, they could dictate the price at will. This monopoly came to an end though in the 18th century when the French smuggled a few nutmeg trees out and were able to cultivate them.
Today, nutmeg trees are commercially grown on Indonesia’s Banda Islands, on the island of Penang (Malaysia), on the Caribbean island of Grenada, and in Sri Lanka, with Indonesia and Grenada constituting the world’s two major export countries.
What To Look For
Fresh mace has a deep red color that turns amber when dried. It is usually sold whole. International systems classify the quality of dried nutmeg based on its size. In Grenada, nutmeg classification is based upon the number of nutmeg per pound, ranging from 60 nutmeg (the highest level of quality with about 8g per seed) to 160 nutmeg (2.8g per seed).
Nutmeg labeled BWP (broken, wormy, punky) consists of broken pieces that often show insect and mold infestation is only used for the production of nutmeg oil and nutmeg extract. However, BWP nutmeg is sometimes illegally used to make ground nutmeg powder, which can have adverse health effects du to the fact that some of the molds affecting nutmeg produce highly carcinogenic substances. It is therefore best to always buy whole nutmeg rather than the ground powder.
How To Use It
Nutmeg’s intense aroma evaporates quite fast once it has been grated, which is why it is best to always grate nutmeg freshly with a grinder (e.g., a sharp cheese grinder). Whole nutmeg has a relatively long shelf life, but seeds that have had pieces grated off should be used in a timely fashion. Like all spices, nutmeg should be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dark space.
In European cooking, dried nutmeg is used both for sweet and savory dishes, including cakes, Lebkuchen, and spiced wine. It is especially popular in potato and vegetable dishes (such as mashed potatoes, spinach, brussels sprouts, green beans, and cabbage), as well as in soups, stews, sauces, and with meats. Freshly ground nutmeg is an essential ingredient in sauce Bèchamel (a white, flour and milk based sauce), which is mainly used in gratin dishes.
On the Malaysian island of Penang, the rind of nutmeg is used as a garnish for ais kacang (a shaved ice dessert with legumes, palm sugar syrup, and coconut milk) and to make iced nutmeg juice. In Malaysia and Indonesia nutmeg rind is also made into jam and candy.
Nutmeg and mace are also popular in Indian and Middle Eastern spice mixes, such as Indian garam masala, Saudi Arabian baharat, and Moroccan ras el hanout. In the Caribbean, nutmeg is popular in Grenada as well as in Jamaica, where it can often be found in jerk spice marinades.