The holidays seem to be a time of year when I’m constantly reaching into my kitchen cabinets for another teaspoon of some dried herb or ground spice. When it comes to ground spices, it’s easy to be disconnected from a dried powder in a small jar and where the spice comes from.
Nutmeg is one such ground spice that is commonly used during the holiday season. In recent years, various popular gourmet cooks have popularized using whole dried nutmeg seeds and grating the needed quantity into a dish rather than scooping it from an already ground powder. But where does nutmeg come from?
Nutmeg is actually a large, tropical tree, and the herbs nutmeg and mace are different parts of the same fruit that come from the nutmeg tree. The nutmeg tree, botanically referred to as Myristica fragrans, is an evergreen tree that typically grows 30 to 40 feet tall with glossy, oval leaves and tiny yellow flowers.
The nutmeg is dioecious which means that male and female flowers grow on one tree to produce fruit. The trunk of the tree is covered with leafy branches, much like a traditional North American fir tree. When the nutmeg tree fruits, they hang on it from top to bottom.
The nutmeg tree is native to Maluku and Banda islands, but is now widely grown in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies and Brazil. It’s believed that nutmegs were introduced to Europe in the 6th century by Asian traders. The Portuguese had a monopoly on nutmeg trade when they occupied the Moluccan islands beginning in the 16th century. That monopoly continued later under Dutch control until the 19th century.
Nutmeg has been widely used for its culinary spice, but it’s also been taken medicinally for digestive disorders, nausea and insomnia. It can also be applied externally for aches and pains.
It typically takes a nutmeg tree about 10 years to bear fruit. The fruit of the nutmeg tree is similar to a black walnut. The fruit has a brownish-yellow, round shell that contains an oval-shaped brown seed.
Surrounding the seed (nutmeg) is a sticky red substance known as “aril.” The aril, when dried, is the spice, mace. The seed and the aril are dried prior to grinding for a powdered spice. As mentioned earlier, nutmeg is available a whole dried seed or as a powder in most spice sections in supermarkets.
Nutmeg and mace are used in a variety of sweet and savory dishes. Mace is the less pungent of the two spices. Typically, nutmeg and mace are common spices in sweets such as breads, pies, puddings and drinks. They can also be nice additions to cream-based pasta sauces and soups.
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