It’s almost hard to believe that nutmeg – such an ordinary little seed – was once so important to wealthy traders. But it’s true. What was its secret?
The nutmeg tree is one of the world’s most versatile spice-yielding plants. It grows in Indonesia, Malaysia, and parts of India and the Caribbean, but is native to the Banda Islands (once known as the Spice Islands) in eastern Indonesia, and once grew there exclusively.
And that was the first secret: location. After discovering nutmeg during their voyages in the Middle Ages, Arab traders refused to tell European merchants where it was to be found. They sold it at high prices, especially when it was rumoured that nutmeg could help prevent infection with the plague. The Europeans eventually discovered the source for themselves. Portuguese and Dutch traders first arrived in Banda in the early sixteenth century and they bought the nutmeg directly.
And here’s the second secret: nutmeg essence is traditionally used as an ingredient in ‘money drawing oils’, which attract wealth – or so the story goes. More about that later.
Magical powers aside, nutmeg was certainly a money-spinner for European opportunists.
The Dutch, in particular, in a rather shady move, managed to seize a trade monopoly, and then took advantage of the law of supply and demand. They kept the price of nutmeg high in Europe, where it was very much in demand, and used extraordinary, and violent, measures to maintain and protect their monopoly, which lasted until the mid twentieth century.
What’s so special about nutmeg?
The plant produces a fruit that looks a little like a pale green fig. But that’s just the beginning. It’s a little gift that keeps on giving. Every part of the fruit has a use, and each has the characteristic nutmeg flavour, with varying intensity.
Working from the outside in…
First, the nutmeg rind can be grated and sweetened and used as a flavouring – for example, as a garnish for ais kacang, the traditional Malaysian iced dessert, or in jam and jelly.
The fruit is used to make a nutmeg syrup jam, called morne delice (Caribbean), or selei buah pala (Indonesia), and is a popular dried and glazed sweet nutmeg treat, manisan pala.
Embedded in the fruit, similar to an avocado stone, is the nutmeg seed. What you see first is a waxy red lacework coating that covers the seed. This is mace, which can easily be peeled off, and its arils, or ‘blades’, are dried and used as a spice, either shredded or finely ground, in sauces, and meat and fish dishes. It is also used in much the same way as saffron – in fruit drinks and in custards – to add colour and a very subtle flavour.
Despite what you have might have read, mace should not be confused with the irritant spray made from hot-chili or capsicum extract. This ‘pepper spray’ is named after a mediaeval weapon called a ‘mace’, and is totally unrelated to the mace from the nutmeg fruit.
Under its mace covering, the nutmeg seed is revealed. It has a hard shell, which resembles a hazel nut, and usually it is dried, whole, until the nutmeg kernel inside shrivels and separates from the shell, which can then be cracked open. Even the shells are useful. Added to barbecue fuel or placed in smokers, they add flavor to meat and fish.
Finally, the last discovery … the nutmeg kernel that most of us recognise. The kernel can be pressed to produce fatty materials, used to make essential oils or nutmeg butter, which is sometimes used as an alternative to cocoa butter. Most often, though, the kernel is dried and stored whole, and grated or powdered, as required.
Nutmeg is good for you
Nutmeg is used in cuisines all over the world – from pumpkin pie to potato mash; from roast meat to rice pudding; from egg-nog to eggs benedict; from curries to croquettes. A favourite in any language. Who knew it was a traditional ingredient in haggis?
According to those who swear by its effectiveness, nutmeg can have some benefits for health and well-being.
- Warm milk with a sprinkle of nutmeg is said to promote a sound sleep. Nutmeg oils massaged into joints are claimed to be effective in reducing muscular and rheumatic pain.
- A mixture of nutmeg and honey can be applied to the skin to clear up blemishes, or added to water and gargled as a sore throat remedy.
- One essential oil found in nutmeg, eugenol, is effective for toothache relief.
- Other oils are used in treatments for nausea, gastritis, and indigestion.
Both nutmeg and mace contain vitamins (A, B-complex and C), anti-oxidants (beta-carotene and cryptoxanthin), and also traces of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
A warning …
Always use nutmeg with caution, though, and only in small quantities. Most people would find large amounts unpalatable anyway, but high-level consumption of nutmeg has been known to have negative effects. It contains substances that have been found to be psychoactive – causing headaches, hallucinations or other mental disturbances in some people.
And what about those mystical, magical qualities?
Related to its ‘money drawing’ reputation, a nutmeg carried in your pocket can bring good luck – at gambling, going for a job, or in a court case. It also protects you while travelling.
Apparently it can help your love life too. Dab on the nutmeg oil and the opposite sex will irresistibly flock to you. In the Spanish West Indies, to sprinkle some nutmeg in a woman’s shoe, at midnight, was to make sure she fell in love with you. Be careful with that one!
If you have already found the love of your life, dividing and sharing a nutmeg will make sure you are together forever. It’s that easy. Believe it or not!
Maybe those early traders were on to some of nutmeg’s other secrets!