The spice we know as nutmeg is the seed from the Myristica fragrans tree. Native to the Moluccas, also known as the Spice Islands of Indonesia, it has an interesting history and not all of it was as warm and fuzzy as pumpkin spice.

Nutmeg's history isn't as sweet as it tastes

Nutmeg is native to a group of islands in Indonesia called the Moluccas or Malukus. They are also known as the Spice Islands because they were the original source for nutmeg and mace. Spices were important long before the 16th and 17th Centuries when Europe got into the spice trade, however the commodities were carefully controlled by Middle Eastern and North African traders who guarded their sources carefully and became fabulously wealthy in the meantime. They even dipped their nutmegs in lime to prevent germination so that their customers couldn't sprout their own trees. When sailing ships improved and long range sea travel was safer, Europe got into the spice trade and it was a time of great explorations and discoveries. Ships bringing exotic goods and flavors from far away carefully guarded the secrets of where they obtained their merchandise. Europe clamored for these delicacies and trading companies grew quite wealthy, marking up the items as much as 60,000%. Finding new routes and faster turn arounds even contributed to the discovery of the Americas when Columbus set out to the west to reach the Far East. Wars were fought over spices and governments rose and fell with the fortunes won and lost. Spices were worth as much as gold and land was even purchased with something as simple as a hand full of peppercorns and a pound of nutmeg was worth seven fattened oxen. In fact, to end a war and hostilities between the two countries, the Dutch traded the insignificant colony of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan to the British for a nutmeg-rich island in called Run in Indonesia. Spice was king and Europe was its subject.

Historical uses and nutmeg lore

One of the reasons that spices were in such demand is that things just didn't smell very good. No refrigeration meant that meats often developed unpleasant odors before they were cooked and personal hygiene wasn't a high priority. It was even believed that bathing frequently could attract evil spirits or the plague. Nutmeg is anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, so it was used as a preservative and the powder was sprinkled on wounds was to prevent infection, however it wasn't powerful enough to be very effective. The warm and pleasing odors of spices like nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon were strong enough to mask just about any stench, so ladies carried pomanders that contained spices and most meat was prepared using them. Towns even burned nutmeg and cinnamon in the streets to cover up odors when royalty was scheduled to visit. Most towns had an odor problem because instead of a sewer system, chamberpots were simply dumped in the street. Nutmeg was also considered a potent charm. Sprinkle some in a woman's shoe and she will fall in love with you. Carrying a nutmeg in your pocket wrapped in a green cloth assured the bearer an advantage at the gambling tables or games of chance. Nutmeg wrapped in a purple cloth would give the person success when faced with legal matters. Some people still carry a nutmeg in their pockets for good luck.

nutmeg fruit on tree

Nutmeg uses today

Today, we mainly use nutmeg in baked goods and sweet drinks, however in days past, it was considered a spice for savory cooking. Many meats and stews had nutmeg added and it is still used in India and Indonesia in this manner. Nutmeg is also used in milk-based sauces, some pastas and vegetables like spinach and winter squash. My mother likes to put it in home made tomato soup, which is delicious, by the way. However most cooks will agree that modern uses tend toward the sweet instead of the savory. Nutmeg is sold in powdered form or in the individual nutmeg kernels where a fine rasp is used to make the powder.

Growing nutmeg

The monopoly on the nutmeg islands was finally broken and it grows in many places around the world. India and Sri Lanka both grow nutmeg and it is also grown in Grenada in the Americas. It thrives in tropical climates with high humidity or the equivalent of USDA Zones 10 and 11. The trees are dioecious, meaning that there are distinct male and female trees. One male tree can fertilize several females. It takes about eight years for the trees to reach maturity and start to bear fruit, so many growers use grafted trees so that they can control the genders of their trees. They have glossy, evergreen leaves and can grow up to sixty feet tall. The nutmeg fruits yield three different types of foods or flavorings. The fleshy fruit is often candied or pickled, the pericarp of the seed (which is a covering around the seed) produces mace which has a similar flavor to the seed, however it is just a bit milder. The seed itself is dried over about eight weeks before it is usable as the ground spice. Essential oil is also pressed from the seed. Nutmeg's history is long and interesting, so this season as you enjoy eggnog, pumpkin pie and spiced coffee, remember nutmeg's journey and impact on civilization.