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About Nutmeg


(Myristica fragrans) The seed of the yellow nutmeg fruit, from which is also derived that other popular spice, mace. The nutmeg is encased in a shiny, brittle, dark brown shell around which the scarlet aril (mace) furls like a wisp of torn lace. The aril is removed and dries, fading to become the ochre blades of mace as we know it. The shell of the nutmeg is glossy when released from its fruit and fragrant oils are apparent in the dried and slightly shriveled nutmeg seed. For superior flavor, grate nutmeg only as you need it.

Although nutmeg was known to Europe long ago as the 12th century, it was not until the Portuguese discovery of the Spice Island (Moluccas) that nutmeg came into general use, and abuse. Control of the spice became a license to print money and the Dutch drove out the Portuguese after less than a hundred years of occupation. They themselves were ousted by the British, but not before a stronghold of nearly two centuries on production and marketing of the spice. During the time of Dutch occupation, the production of nutmeg was restricted and they systematically destroyed all nutmeg trees growing anywhere but on the islands of Banda and Amboina. Their plans were thwarted by fruit pigeons who swallowed nutmeg seeds and dropped them on nearby islands.

The British introduced nutmeg trees to Penang and later, Singapore. The largest producers of nutmeg are Indonesia, Grenada (in the West Indies) and Sri Lanka.

For those who thought nutmeg was a flavor restricted to the Western pastrycook's armory of spices, it is interesting to note that it is one of the fragrant spices vital to spice blends across India (garam masala), and curries generally (Indonesia, Malaysia and India). Interestingly, although Sri Lanka is a major grower of the spice, it does not feature much in that cuisine, except in traditional Dutch sweets.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, the thick outer shell of the yellow fruit which looks rather like an apricot, is sliced finely, cooked and crystallized to make a fragrant candy called manisan pala. This is sometimes served with cups of clear tea at the end of the meal.

Purchasing and storing : Buy whole nutmegs if possible. Nutmegs are almost round and about 3 cm long and very slightly more in diameter. Some nutmegs are sold still in their thin shells which must be cracked to reveal the fragrant kernel within. Stored in an airtight jar they will keep indefinitely, but once grated or crushed, the volatile oils and accompanying fragrance quickly dissipate.

Preparation : Grate finely, ideally just before use.

Medicinal uses : Nutmeg taken in very large doses is said to cause hallucinations or drowsiness. It is alleged to increase the intoxicating effects of alcohol, which perhaps would explain its presence in recipes for eggnog. There are also claims that it is an aphrodisiac. In Malaysia, nutmeg oil and nutmeg balm (important commercial products) are used externally for muscular aches and pains, sprains, bruises and insect bites. Internally (and the dose must be carefully regulated) they are useful for relieving flatulence, nausea and vomiting. They are also said to cure palpitation of the heart and prevent swooning. Self-treatment is not recommended. Nutmeg contains the hallucinogen myristicin.

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