Nutmeg, A Spice With A Past...

     Nutmeg grows on the tropical evergreen Nutmeg tree

Nutmeg is native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia. Nutmeg is a bitter, spicy herb that acts as a warming, digestive tonic. It has been used for centuries to stimulate digestion, improve the appetite, prevent gas and fermentation in the intestinal tract, treat digestive tract infections and ease indigestion, colic, flatulent dyspepsia, nausea, abdominal distention, bad breath and tooth ache. If it wasn't for nutmeg, nobody would have heard of the Bandas islands in Indonesia. The spice evolved there, and for centuries this was the only place it grew on the planet.

 The history of nutmeg is remarkable. By the sixth century, the spice had reached Byzantium, 12,000km away. Around 1,000 AD, the Persian physician Ibn Sina described the "jansi ban" or Banda nut. The Arabs traded nutmeg through the dark and middle ages, mostly through Venice to season the tables of the European aristocracy. It was always expensive, a found 14th-century German price table says that a pound of Nutmeg cost as much as "seven fat oxen". The Portuguese military genius Afonso de Albuquerque annexed the Indonesian Islands, of which the Bandas islands are part of, in 1511. The fortresses he built there established a Portuguese monopoly over the world's nutmeg that lasted almost a whole century. Then the Dutch East India Company, seized all but one of the Bandas islands in the early 1600's, enslaving the native occupants. The Dutch enforced their nutmeg monopoly with paranoid brutality, banning the export of the trees, drenching every nutmeg in lime before shipping to render it infertile, and imposing the death penalty on anyone suspected of stealing, growing or selling nutmegs elsewhere. When some Bandanese failed to appreciate the God-given right of The Dutch East India Company to control the nutmeg trade, the head of the Company, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, ordered the systematic quartering and beheading of every Bandanese male over the age of 15. The population of the Banda islands was around 15,000 when the Dutch arrived. 15 years later, it was 600. The Dutch perpetuated their nutmeg monopoly by brutal force and pathological secrecy, never revealing to traders the islands location. Then, in 1769, Pierre Poivre, a french horticulturist swooped onto the island, and under the noses of the Dutch he smuggled out nutmeg and nutmeg trees. The French planted the seeds on their colony Mauritius, and the Dutch monopoly was broken. Quite a bloody past for this little spice.

Today Nutmeg is cultivated in the West Indies (caribbean), South Africa, the Molucca Islands and other tropical areas of the world. The tree has, dark-green leaves, pale yellow flowers and a brown, wrinkled fruit. The oval fruit is fleshy in appearance, like an apricot, but it may grow as large as a peach. When it ripens, will split open exposing the bright-red, net-like aril, from which another spice, Mace is derived. It's wrapped around a dark reddish-brown and brittle shell, where inside is a single kernel. The seed, after its shell has been broken and discarded, is the Nutmeg. Nutmeg and Mace are the only spices that are produced by separate parts of the same fruit. As one of the most widely-used domestic spices, Nutmeg is an important flavoring for bakery products, drinks, meats, vegetables, cheese dishes, sauces, puddings and pasta stuffing. Its fatty oil is also used in perfumery, soap and candle manufacturing. Now remember that fresh grated, whole nutmeg will always have a richer flavor than the ground spice. A pod will remain fresh about twelve months while ground will lose flavor in six months or less. After grating a fresh pod, wrap it in plastic or store it in a sealing BPA free container, to preserve the oil content. FYI here are some of the health benefits:
  • Nutmeg spice as well as mace contains many plant derived chemical compounds that are known to have high anti-oxidant properties.
  • Nutmeg has many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines as anti-fungal, anti-depressant, aphrodisiac, digestive and carminative functions.
  • Nutmeg is a good source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, zinc and magnesium. Potassium in an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese and copper are used by the body as co-factors for the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase. Iron is essential for red blood cell production and as a co-factor for cytochrome oxidases enzymes.
  • Nutmeg is also rich in many vital B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, folic acid, vitamin A and many flavonoid anti-oxidants like beta carotene and cryptoxanthins that are essential for optimum health.
  • The most promising aspects of nutmeg, seem to be its potential as an anti-depressant and as an aphrodisiac when used in small doses.
Since ancient times this spicy nut and its oil were being used in many Chinese and Indian, and Egyptian traditional medicines, prepared as a tea for illnesses related to the nervous and digestive systems. The compounds in this spice such as myristicin and elemicin also have stimulant properties on brain. Nutmeg oil contains eugenol and has been used in dentistry for toothache relief and to cure bad breath. The oil is also used as a local massage to reduce muscular pain and rheumatic pain of joints. Freshly prepared tea with honey has been used to relieve nausea, gastritis, indigestion ailments.

Both Nutmeg and Mace are used in cooking recipes. Mace has delicate flavor and gives saffron-like orange-red color to the food items. Whole nuts like I said are preferred over grounded form since it is rich in essential oils which gives flavor and freshness to recipes. Whole seeds can be grated then added to the recipes at the last moment of cooking. Nutmeg and Mace can be used in sauces, soups, and in confectionery. Mace is especially used as a colorant and flavoring agent in sweets, pie, cakes, and many other baked goods. The spice is also used as one of the common ingredients in curry powder used in meat and vegetable dishes all over Asia.

Now, I admit that my greatest exposure to the use of nutmeg comes from bar-tending in the Caribbean Islands, and I want to say here and now that,  No nutmeg in the Caribbean is not known for it's use on puppy drinks like a Brandy Alexander's. It's used in a drink called a "Pain Killer" which I'm afraid, no I'm sure, has  caused more pain than it ever killed ! And it goes something like this:

Virgin Islands Pain Killer
1oz. white rum
1oz. dark rum
1oz Pussers rum
1/2oz. 151 rum
Equal parts orange juice and pineapple juice                                
1oz. coco lopez
Flash blend or shake
Float the 151 rum on top
Top with grated nutmeg 

Now this is important, nutmeg in low doses, produces no noticeable physiological or neurological
response. HOWEVER in large doses, raw nutmeg has psychoactive effects. In its freshly-ground, from whole nutmegs form, nutmeg contains myristicin, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor and psychoactive substance. While the Chinese even smoked it for these properties I don't recommend it. Myristicin poisoning can induce convulsions, palpitations, nausea, eventual dehydration, and generalized body pain. If eaten it's also a strong deliriant. So if you want to see purple dinosaurs that talk, choke down a teaspoon, it's on you. Me, I wouldn't spend the day eating Nutmeg, and besides if it were that great of a experience EVERYONE would be doing it! Good Luck...

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