Nutmeg is one of the most subtle and versatile spices used in cooking. Together with its sister spice mace it deserves to be used much more widely than it currently is, although there are signs of its use picking up significantly in recent years, especially in freshly grated form.
Nutmeg kernel in mace aril
Nutmegs originate from the Banda Islands archipelago in Eastern Indonesia. The main producers today are Indonesia ("East Indian nutmeg") and Grenada ("West Indian nutmeg"). Indonesian nutmeg is exported mainly to Asia and Europe while Grenadan nutmeg mostly serves the US markets.
Nutmeg is not a nut, but the kernel of an apricot-like fruit. The leathery tissue between the nutmeg stone and the pulp is the related spice, mace. Broken nutmegs and those infested by pests are used for distillation of oil of nutmeg and production of nutmeg extract. The pulp of the nutmeg fruit is tough, woody and very sour but is used in Indonesia to make the jam selei buah pala, which has a pleasant nutmeg aroma.
Myristicaceae (nutmeg family).
Nutmeg is strongly aromatic, resinous and warm in taste. Nutmeg quickly loses its fragrance when ground and hence the required amount should be grated from a whole nut immediately before usage.
In many European countries the name of nutmeg derives from Latin nux muscatus "musky nut", often with adaptation as in Danish muskatnød, French muscade and Greek moschokarido. It was known in England in the Middle Ages as notemugge.
The term musk refers to an aroma obtained since antiquity from the musk deer, a dog-sized animal native to the Himalayas. The name comes from the Greek moschos. The origin is probably the Sanskrit mushka "testicle", as musk is produced only by the male deer in glands often confused with testicles. Nutmeg is called jouz at-tib "fragrant nut" in Arabic.
Some languages call nutmeg "Indian nut" (e.g. Bulgarian Indijsko orekhche), although it does not stem from India but was transported from its homeland to Central Asia and Europe via South India. In centuries past, such names were common in many other languages, but have largely been abandoned since.
The genus name myristica is from Greek myristik, meaning "fragrant", as in its Latin botanical name fragrans. This in turn derives from ancient Greek myron "balm" or "ointment", which is probably related to Hebrew mor "myrrh", with a common Semitic root mrr "bitter". Some other fragrant plants bear similar scientific names, e.g. myrtus (myrtle), myrrhis (cicely) and myrica (gale).
The species name fragrans also refers to a pleasant aroma, from the Latin verb fragrare, "to smell".
Nutmeg only became known in Europe comparatively recently because of the limited geographical distribution of the nutmeg tree. It was introduced to European markets by Arab traders in the 11th century and was first used chiefly for flavouring beer. It was thought to originate from India.
Significant trade in Europe started in the 16th century, when Portuguese ships sailed to the Spice Islands, today the Moluccas province of Eastern Indonesia. During the 17th century the Dutch monopolised the major trade in nutmegs, as they did with cloves.
Nutmeg from related species are sometimes found as adulterants of true nutmeg, these being m. argentea "Macassar nutmeg" from New Guinea and m. malabarica "Bombay nutmeg" from South India. The former is described as pungent and wintergreen-like, while the latter lacks fragrance. Both can be identified by the shape of their seeds.
Today the popularity of nutmeg has diminished, although significant use continues in Arab countries, Iran and North India, where nutmeg and mace appear in delicately-flavoured meat dishes. The North Indian spice mixture garam masala contains nutmeg or mace, as does ras el hanout from Morocco, gâlat dagga from neighbouring Tunisia and baharat from Saudi Arabia.
In Western cuisine, nutmeg is popular for cakes, crackers and stewed fruits and sometimes used to flavour cheese (e.g. in fondue and Béchamel sauce). The combination of spinach with nutmeg is a classic, especially for Italian ravioli. The Dutch remain Europe's greatest lovers of nutmeg, using it for cabbage, potato and other vegetables and also for meat, soups, stews and sauces.
Lasagne is one of Italy's most famous dishes, comprising flat noodle pasta pieces, stuffing (meat sauce, spinach or other vegetables) and cheese, layered in a casserole, topped with Béchamel sauce and baked. A similar recipe from Greece is mousaka, made from a spiced ground meat sauce and aubergines, with a Béchamel-type sauce containing egg and cheese to give a less liquid texture and a flavourful crust after baking.
Nutmeg is the characteristic flavouring of Béchamel sauce, which despite its French name is today common to several European cuisines. Wheat flour is dispersed in molten butter at low temperatures, hot milk is added and the mixture is boiled till it thickens. The only spices used are nutmeg and ground white pepper. Béchamel sauce is rarely served at the table, but more often used for the preparation of baked foods because on baking it forms a delicious, golden brown surface, especially if sprinkled with grated cheese.
The classical French spice mixture quatre épices contains nutmeg together with white pepper, cloves, ginger and optionally allspice and cinnamon, all finely ground together. The resulting powder is mostly used to flavour meat dishes, especially those which are cooked or braised for a rather long time, e.g. stews and ragouts and sometimes also for sausages and pastries.
As a large percentage of nutmeg is today grown in Grenada it is not surprising that nutmeg has entered Caribbean cuisines. In Grenadan cooking, nutmeg is omnipresent with the locals even eating nutmeg-flavoured ice cream. Nutmeg is an optional ingredient in the famous Caribbean spice paste, Jamaican jerk.