Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), a nut-like pit or seed, got its English name from Latin nux, meaning nut, and muscat, musky. From the 14th-18th centuries, nutmeg was at the center of the bloody spice wars as the Dutch, Portuguese, French, and English fought over the “spice islands,” the Moluccas in Indonesia, until the English realized they could grow nutmeg trees on their own turf – the Caribbean. Today the Moluccas and Grenada are the largest world suppliers.
Nutmeg has a taste unlike any other in the world. Its intense, musky-sweet flavor comes from myristicin, a volatile oil also found in plants (carrots, celery, parsley), but most abundantly in nutmeg. Today, this oil and other compounds in the spice are the subject of much scientific research, thus far showing promise in pain relief, lowering cholesterol, improving memory and sexual desire, relieving anxiety, indigestion, even reducing wrinkles.
Nutmeg also has a reputation, now confirmed by animal studies, as an inexpensive narcotic (”a cheap high”). However, to feel any effect one would have to consume a heck of a lot: about 2 ounces, an impossible amount to eat in normal food where a teaspoon suffices for a whole cheesecake – which is probably why we never hear of drug enforcement raids on spice cabinets! It’s also why experimentation is a very bad idea – there are more than a few cases of fatal nutmeg poisoning in people who did!
Buying and Storage
The large evergreen nutmeg tree produces two spices – mace and nutmeg. Nutmeg is the seed kernel inside a yellow, peach-size fruit and mace is the lacy covering (aril) on the kernel. A single mature tree produces up to 2,000 nutmegs a year, collected with a long pole with a basket, resembling a lacrosse stick.
Whole nutmeg has more flavor than powdered, but quality can vary. Most come from Indonesia, but those from Grenada are considered the best. Look for nutmegs that are
unbroken, slightly wrinkled, dark brown on the outside, lighter brown inside. Whole nuts will keep for several years in a tightly sealed jar in a dark, dry place and can be grated as required with a nutmeg grater. If kept too long, the whole spice will dry out and loose its volatile oils. Ground keeps about a year under the same conditions.
As mentioned, large amounts of nutmeg can be toxic. It is considered safe, however, when used for culinary purposes, even in generous amounts.
Pain relief: Nutmeg oil is an excellent sedative and anti-inflammatory. Massaging with the oil helps ease muscular and joint pain and sores. It’s very effective for reducing the painful swelling of joints in arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, etc.
Indigestion: Used in small doses, nutmeg can reduce flatulence, aid digestion, improve the appetite and treat diarrhea, vomiting and nausea.
High cholesterol: Animal studies have found that nutmeg reduces total and LDL (”bad”) cholesterol.
Cancer: Studies have shown that nutmeg extract killed human leukemia cells.
Anxiety: Nutmeg is a relaxant, used in folk medicine to relieve anxiety and depression. Animal studies in India found that nutmeg had an effectiveness similar to common anti- anxiety drugs in alleviating symptoms. The spice also “significantly improved” learning and memory.
Wrinkles: Of 150 plants tested, nutmeg was one of 6 plants found to contain compounds that could inhibit elastase, an enzyme that breaks down elastin, the protein fibers that keep skin youthfully taut and flexible (if elastin breaks down, skin sags). When added to cosmetics, the researchers, reporting in International Journal of Cosmetic Science, concluded that nutmeg has “anti-aging effects on human skin.” A Korean study, found nutmeg protected skin from the sun’s damaging UVB rays.
Sexual desire: Nutmeg is a central nervous stimulant. In ancient Greek medicine it was considered an aphrodisiac, as it is today in India and Pakistan. Investigating this premise, researchers in Journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that when experimental animals were fed nutmeg, they went nuts: “The resultant significant and sustained increase in sexual activity indicated that extract of nutmeg possesses aphrodisiac activity, increasing libido.”
In the Kitchen
In Merry Old England, nutmeg was integral to pease porridge, served hot or cold or 9 days old! Today, in the U.S. and British Isles, the spice is used mostly to flavor sweet dishes and beverages – especially alcoholic favorites like eggnog, hot rum, mulled
wine, and other drinks, like cocoa, milkshakes. In the Caribbean, nutmeg goes into just about everything: jerked meats, curries, spice mixes, syrup (with sugar and rum), ice cream, sweet potato pie, chicken, rum cocktails. The French use it to cut the richness of sauces like béchamel, potatoes au gratin, while the Germans add it to standard daily fare – puddings, potato dishes, dumplings, chicken soup. The Indian variety of nutmeg is slightly stronger and more oily than Grenadian or Indonesian. It’s used to flavor vegetables, some desserts, garam masala spice mix. Nutmeg is also the main ingredient in Indian betel leaves, rolled tightly and chewed like chewing tobacco for its digestive and stimulant effects.
The peak of flavor for a nutmeg is the moment you grate it, so it’s best added toward the end of cooking or just before serving. Nutmeg injects a sweet spiceness to savory dishes, like a braise, a slow-cooking casserole or curries made with coconut milk. It adds a new layer of flavor when sprinkled over potatoes or cooked vegetables such as cauliflower, onion, eggplant, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, spinach. The spice cuts through the fat of milk, cream, eggs, cheese and custards, so it makes a perfect marriage with dairy, as well as nut milk soups or smoothies.