“Nature was indeed at her artistic best when she created the nutmeg, a delight to the eye in all its avatars, from the completely garbed to nudity.”
—Waverly Root (food writer)
Nutmeg, for me, is the spice of life. Tangy, sour, sweet smelling, potent, medicinal, it is a little like life itself, come to think of it. The unusual versatility of nutmeg makes it one of the most widely used spices in the foods of many countries. Nutmeg has a long history of acclaimed healing and magical powers. Most of these were for inducing romance or enhancement of beauty or popularity. Nowadays, the use of nutmeg is pretty much limited to the food industry.
Nutmeg is not a nut, but the kernel of an apricot-like fruit. Mace is an arillus, a thin leathery tissue between the stone and the pulp; it is bright red to purple when harvested, but after drying changes to amber.
Seeds grow from the fertilized female trees only. The average nutmeg tree takes nearly nine years to mature. It needs extremely fertile soil and to be near the sea where temperatures rarely dip below 60°F. Nutmeg fruits are available throughout the year but the peak period of harvest is from June to August. When the fruits are fully ripe, the nuts split open; these are either plucked from the trees or allowed to drop.
After dehusking, the red feathery aril i.e., the mace, is removed, flattened out and dried slowly in the sun for 10-15 days. The nuts are dried for four to eight weeks till the kernels rattle within the shell.
The fruit of the nutmeg resembles an apricot. When you break the flesh open, you discover an outer covering, scarlet in color, known as mace. Mace dries to a light brown color; and, since it is only the thin outer covering of the shell, each fruit produces far less mace than nutmeg.
Nutmeg was one of the last spices introduced to Europe, generating extremely high profits to the Portuguese, who had discovered the nutmeg’s natural habitat in the Moluccas. They controlled the nutmeg and mace trade for almost a century until driven out by the Dutch, who proved very ruthless in their efforts to monopolize the nutmeg trade. They allowed nutmeg to be grown only on certain islands that they could easily protect with their forces. Each nutmeg that left the island was limed, a practice of sterilization ensuring that the nutmeg would not grow if planted elsewhere.
The death penalty was enforced upon anyone caught smuggling nutmeg. When Columbus sailed from Spain looking for the East Indies, nutmeg was one of the spices for which he was searching. Native to the Spice Islands, this seed from the nutmeg tree was extremely popular throughout much of the world from the 15th to the 19th century. In India nutmeg is cultivated mainly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kalady a leafy hamlet in Kerala is my hometown renowned as the birthplace of Sri Adi Shankaracharya. Kalady and its neighboring town Angamaly are among the main cultivators of nutmeg in India.
In our ancestral home nutmeg trees line the edges of lush paddy fields, their canopied branches drooping low on the ground. The pulp of the nutmeg fruit is tough, almost woody, and very sour. In Indonesia, it is used to make a delicious jam with pleasant nutmeg aroma (selei buah pala). In my household we salt the cut raw fruit, and dry it in the sun for two to three days. The leathery dry pickle can be stored in airtight container and used in curries and chutneys as desired.
Nutmeg is widely used in recipes such as curried squash, creamed spinach, sweet potato pie, rice pudding, pound cakes, eggnog, breads and is often the secret ingredient in stews, soups, sauces, preserves and meatballs. In India nutmeg finds its way into recipes of meat dishes, pulaos, breads and desserts. They are also popular items in biscuits, cookies, dry fruit compotes, fruit salads, pastries and milk drinks. Its oily forms are frequently used in pharmaceuticals (especially cough mixtures), soft drinks, and meat seasonings.
Lore has it that at the height of its value in Europe, nutmeg was carried around by ladies and gentlemen 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 accoutrements, giving rise to intricate designs and shapes made of precious metals. These antique graters are now prized by collectors. Here are two of my favorite recipes using nutmeg.
Nutmeg Ice Cream
1½ cups milk
1½ cups heavy cream
3 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon vanilla
In a saucepan bring the milk and the cream just to a boil. In a bowl whisk together the eggs, the sugar, the nutmeg, the salt, and the vanilla, whisk ½ cup of the milk mixture into the egg mixture, and whisk the mixture into the remaining milk mixture. Cook the custard over moderate heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spatula, until it registers 175°F on a candy thermometer. Transfer the custard to a metal bowl set in a larger bowl of ice and cold water and stir it until it is cold. Freeze the custard in an ice-cream freezer according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Sweet dish from Maharashtra, India
6 cups plain yogurt
½ cup powdered sugar
¼ tsp powdered saffron or 5-6 saffron strands
2-4 tbsp of crushed pistachio nuts
¼ tsp ground nutmeg (jaiphal)
¼ tsp ground cardamom
Hang the yogurt in two layers of cheesecloth over a bowl to catch the drippings. Allow it to drain overnight, or at least for 5 hours. Scrape the drained yogurt into a bowl. It should be thick and half the original volume.
Add the powdered sugar and saffron to the yogurt. Beat with a whisk. When using saffron strands, soak them in little water before adding to the drained yogurt. Garnish the shrikhand with crushed pistachio nuts, nutmeg and cardamom.