The nutmeg tree is a large evergreen tree, native to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas. Inside its apricot-like fruit lies a hard seed, the kernel of which is the spice nutmeg. The Portuguese were able to keep the source of nutmeg and mace a close secret for nearly a century until they were driven out of the Spice Islands by the Dutch. After the English captured the Spice Islands in 1796, the British East India Company introduced the nutmeg tree to Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies. Grenada, in the West Indies, now produces almost a third of the world’s nutmeg crop.
Native range Banda Islands (part of the Indonesian archipelago)
Major producers Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, West Indies
Harvesting The yellowish, apricot-like fruits are gathered when they ripen, then the outer skin, white flesh, and mace are removed. The seeds, covered by a hard, brown-black shell, are dried on trays for 6-8 weeks, until the nutmeg kernel rattles in its shell. The shells are then cracked open and the smooth, brown nutmegs are removed and graded by size.
Taste and aroma Nutmeg smells sweet but is more camphorous and pine-like than mace. The taste is warm and highly aromatic, with hints of clove and a deeper woody flavour.
Culinary uses In India, nutmeg is used more than mace because of the latter’s high cost. It is an ingredient in Moghul dishes and the Arabs have long used nutmeg (and mace) to flavour mutton and lamb dishes. Western cuisine makes extensive use of nutmeg in both sweet and savoury dishes.
Other uses Nutmeg and its extracts are extensively used in liqueurs, chewing gum, and confectionery. Nutmeg oil is used in perfumes and ointments.
Historical uses The early use of nutmeg in China, India, Arabia, and Europe was medicinal. Nutmeg gained importance as a spice only after the Portuguese started trading directly from the Banda Islands in the 16th century.
Storage Nutmeg is best bought whole. It keeps almost indefinitely when stored in an airtight container and is easily ground or grated as required.