Nutmeg: Exotic, Intoxicating Myrstica
(This article was originally published on December 8, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
It all started one Saturday morning when my mother ran out of cinnamon for my French toast.
"Nutmeg," she said. "I thought you would like nutmeg. And if you do like it we'll make donuts for breakfast tomorrow." We did not have store bought donuts in those days, so the only donuts I had ever eaten must have weighed a pound or two each, and were as greasy as bacon. I was not fond of eating donuts, except those that were dipped in cinnamon and sugar. I tasted the nutmeg on my French toast and decided it might taste good on donuts, so I gave Mom my approval. I truly must have been a difficult child, or my mother must have had the patience of a saint because I was so particular about what I ate, I know cooking for me must have been a real chore. After a while donuts and French toast with nutmeg on weekend mornings were quite the norm. When she began adding nutmeg to puddings and pies, I couldn't seem to ever get enough. I did love nutmeg.
One day I told my mother that if I could sprinkle nutmeg on all my food then maybe she would not have to fuss too much about my eating habits, which in those days were the topics of many of her lectures. Time passed, and it got so I could smell nutmeg at the mouth of the holler every time Mom cooked with it. The mouth of the holler was where you turned off the main road onto the small one lane road that led up to my house. It passed Aunt Bett's house, her garden and a barn before you could even see my house around the bend, but I could surely smell nutmeg that far away.
I remember asking my mother what plant the nutmeg came from, and she told me that it must be from a plant that grows far away, she was very sure that it did not grow in the mountains. I asked Aunt Bett and my Granny Ninna the same question, and received the same answer every time. I decided then and there that someday I would get myself a nutmeg plant. Little did I know that many years before I came along in countries far away from the mountains of southeast Kentucky, others much older and wiser than I also became quite addicted to nutmeg.
The nutmeg (Myristica) are a genus of evergreen trees indigenous to tropical southeast Asia and Australia. The tree grows to about 40 feet, producing aromatic leaves and clusters of small yellow flowers that eventually produce the fruits. They are important for two spices derived from the fruit, nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the seed of the tree. It is egg shaped, and about an inch long and a little less wide. It weighs about a half ounce dried. Mace is the dried lacy reddish covering of the seed. This is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices. The most important species commercially is the Myristica fragrans, native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia. It is also grown in the Caribbean, particularly in Grenada. It is a slow growing plant. The first harvest of nutmeg trees takes place 7-9 years after planting and the trees reach their full potential after 20 years.
Historically, there is some evidence that Roman priests may have burned nutmeg as incense. It is known to have been used as a prized and costly spice in medieval cuisine. In some monasteries monks were allowed to sprinkle nutmeg on their pease pudding. During Elizabethan times it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague, and it was traded by Arabs during the Middle Ages. Following the 17th century, nutmeg was much in demand, so much so that takeovers from larger countries threatened the small islands where it was originally grown. Currently Indonesia and Grenada dominate production and exports of both nutmeg and mace.
As is true of so many popular foods, there is a downside. Nutmeg was first brought to Europe from the Banda Islands by Portuguese sailors in 1512, and soon was regarded as a cureall and tonic. Its hallucinogenic properties were also soon discovered. The key components of nutmeg are volatile oil (including borneol, eugenol, myristine, and butyrin). Myristicin is the constiuent most responsible for its toxicity and hallucinogenic action, and safrole in isolation and in high doses is carcinogenic. On the other hand, clinical trials have successfully treated Crohn's disease with nutmeg.
A most historically interesting spice, nutmeg has long been alleged to have aphrodisiacal powers, giving rise to a lot of love potions. At the height of its value in Europe, nutmeg was carried around by ladies and gents as a demonstration of wealth. Diners would flourish tiny graters and grate their own in fancy restaurants. As a result, personal nutmeg graters became quite fashionable, resulting in intricate designs and shapes made of precious metals.
Nutmeg is not used medicinally very much in the west now, because of its potential toxicity. It is mainly used in culinary dishes here and that is fine with me. The Chinese use it to warm the stomach and to regulate energy. In India, nutmeg is ground into a paste and applied directly to areas of eczema and ringworm.
Large doses of nutmeg, as much as 12 twelve spoons a day is indeed fatal, and this proved to be a problem in some countries before the use of it became regulated. There is no indication that a mere sprinkling of it in foods is harmful. As a seasoning, it is a flavorful addition to many foods, and is best grated fresh. In Indian cuisine, nutmeg powder is used almost exclusively in sweet dishes. Ground nutmeg is also smoked in India. In Middle Eastern cuisine, nutmeg powder is often used as a spice for savory dishes. The same is true for Greece and Cyprus. In Europe, nutmeg is used especially in potato dishes and in processed meat products. It is also used in soups, sauces, and baked goods. In Dutch cuisine, it is added to vegetable dishes like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and string beans. The Japanese variety of curry powder includes nutmeg as an ingredient. It is also used in mulled cider, mulled wine, and eggnog. In the Caribbean, it is usually sprinkled on top of any rum drink.
That is a lot of history about one little spice, one relatively small tree. Much ado about nothing, perhaps. But as we prepare for the holidays, I'll bet nutmeg is often used in many of our homes. I had no idea there was a downside to nutmeg. To me it is a delightfully tasty spice, and one I associate with those weekend mornings many years ago in the Appalachian mountains. It is good to know that ground nutmeg in our dishes is not likely to hurt us, but will only enhance what we already enjoy eating or drinking.
I guess there is always a downside to anything we overindulge in, even at Christmas.
Thanks to my friend Melody for the thumbnail photo.
All other photos are from Wikipedia's Public Domain. The photo in which the red veins are visible indicates mace, the second spice provided by the tree.