Nutmeg

Nutmeg

I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg
And a golden pear

Nutmeg is a fragrant, slightly sweet spice that has been used for hundreds of years in Britain and Western Europe, and was among those spices viciously fought over in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is in fact said that the Dutch made an exchange with England in the 1660s, trading Manhattan for the last nutmeg-producing island under British control, along with a sugar-producing territory in South America…

Myristica fragrans

Nutmeg Tree

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nutmeg and Mace both come from the nutmeg tree; nutmeg is the seed, while mace is the dried “lacy” reddish covering (the aril) of the seed. The word originates from the Old French “nois mugede” and medieval Latin “nux muscata”.

The fruit of the nutmeg tree looks like an apricot, and when ripe it splits to reveal the red aril encasing the shiny seed, or “nut”. The mace is removed and dried, as are the nutmegs – traditionally in the sun. The process is labour-intensive, since they need turning regularly for several weeks. At the end of the drying, the hard seed coat is split open to extract the kernels – what we know as nutmegs – which have shrunk and are loose in the shell.

Nutmeg Fruit

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The nutmeg tree is indigenous to the Spice Islands in Indonesia and the Caribbean. However, the Arabs who traded this spice in Venice did not reveal where it originated for many years, and were able to demand high prices for it. In the 16th and 17th centuries the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, became major traders in this and other spices, such as cloves. Wars were fought, and warehouses of nutmeg were burnt to keep prices artificially high; barely comprehensible to us in present times, yet simple spices which we take for granted nowadays played such a great role in the building of colonies and empires, and in our trading and shipping history.

NutmegBotanical

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

~

The king of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me
All for the sake of
My little nut tree

It is said that the King of Spain’s daughter referred to here was Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. So the rhyme goes back to the early 16th century.

~

Did you know “to nutmeg” is actually a verb?  I had no idea….

It means either: to flavour with nutmeg, as in She decided the eggnog was lacking in flavor, so she decided to nutmeg it heavily.

Or: in soccer, to play the ball between the legs of the opponent

~

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

~

Nutmeg

I have never used mace, but apparently it has a similar but superior flavour to nutmeg. For as long as I remember I have put a little nutmeg, freshly grated, in milk puddings, egg dishes, or with carrots and spinach. More recently I have used it in a zucchini cake, and in a curry! The uses are thus varied. I have also heard that consuming large quantities of it can lead to intoxication and hallucinations! (Read here)

Do you use nutmeg? And if so, what dishes do you add it to?

I’ll post a recipe I use it in very soon!

😀

43 thoughts on “Nutmeg

  1. Fascinating stuff, Cathy! I had no idea. I love nutmeg and always use it freshly grated (as opposed to buying it ground in a jar). I usually use it in baked apples or in pumpkin dishes, but I often use it with spinach, as well.
    The nursery rhyme is a lovely touch in this post. I do remember that one, too!
    Altogher a wonderful post, Cathy. Well done.

    • Thank you so much Robin. I had never thought of using it in pumpkin dishes, but imagine it would go beautifully. Lovely of you to stop by! 😀

  2. I love a plant with a story behind it! We use plenty of grated nutmeg in cheese sauces, especially for macaroni cheese, and in flans, in apple cake… so many uses! Looking forward to your recipe.

  3. Some time ago I read that nutmeg is an aphrodisiac. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced such a thing. We us it in eggnog, pumpkin pie, fettuccine alfredo, and deviled eggs.

  4. I used to sing this nursery rhyme to my son when he was small! In Malaysia we eat pickled nutmeg or slices of sugared nutmeg as snacks! Thank you for this lovely post and now I can tell my son the name of the King’s daughter who came to visit! 😀 Sharon

  5. What a great post Cathy! Fascinating to learn about nutmeg and mace and to see the photo of the nutmeg fruit with that beautiful red aril. For years I’ve used nutmeg in a spinach quiche recipe.

  6. The little rhyme made me all sentimental… I forgot that I knew it (if you know what I mean!). Nutmeg is delicious, homely and transforms the simplest of dishes and bakes x I’ve never used mace either so will keep an eye out for it!

    • I must see if I can find some mace next time I go to our big health food store, and then experiment with it. I have always loved this song/rhyme too, and must have learnt it when I was VERY small. 😀

  7. Very interesting Cathy! I’ve never heard about mace (only in context with pepper sprays 😉 ) and I only started to use nutmeg after you mentioned it in your recipes (thanks for the hint by the way I like it very much)!

  8. You made me wonder about the origin of the English word nutmeg. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary gives:

    “Middle English notemuge, probably ultimately from Old French nois mugede, alteration of nois muscade, nut smelling like musk, from Old Provençal notz muscada : notz, nut (from Latin nux, nuc-, nut) + muscada, smelling like musk (from musc, musk, from Late Latin muscus…).”

    I see that reflected in the German name in your last photograph, Muskatnüsse.

    Isn’t etymology a-mace-ing?

    • I bought some ground mace today, so will be experimenting soon…. I didn’t realize it’s the same plant either, till I started reading up on nutmeg!

  9. Pingback: Creamy Carrot Soup and Tofu Croutons | Words and Herbs

  10. Lovely blog. Just wanted to let you know that mace and nutmeg have exactly the same volatile oils, but in different proportions making mace slightly more delicate than nutmeg. I use nutmeg combined with a number of different spices to create traditional Indian, Sri Lankan and West-Indian spice blends. A little dash on rum punch is a must in Trinidad where I was born.

    • Thank you for stopping by Ethne. That’s interesting – I have since used mace too, but prefer nutmeg, which I also like in Indian style curries. 😀

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