Nutmeg is the seed or ground spice of several species of the genus Myristica. Myristica fragrans (fragrant nutmeg or true nutmeg) is a dark-leaved evergreen tree cultivated for two spices derived from its fruit: nutmeg, from its seed, and mace, from the seed covering. It is also a commercial source of an essential oil and nutmeg butter. The California nutmeg, Torreya californica, has a seed of similar appearance, but is not closely related to Myristica fragans, and is not used as a spice. If consumed in amounts exceeding its typical use as a spice, nutmeg powder may produce allergic reactions, cause contact dermatitis, or have psychoactive effects. Although used in traditional medicine for treating various disorders, nutmeg has no known medicinal value.
Nutmeg is the spice made by grinding the seed of the fragrant nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) tree into powder. The spice has a distinctive pungent fragrance and a warm slightly sweet taste; it is used to flavor many kinds of baked goods, confections, puddings, potatoes, meats, sausages, sauces, vegetables, and such beverages as eggnog.
The seeds are dried gradually in the sun over a period of six to eight weeks. During this time the nutmeg shrinks away from its hard seed coat until the kernels rattle in their shells when shaken. The shell is then broken with a wooden club and the nutmegs are picked out. Dried nutmegs are grayish brown ovals with furrowed surfaces. The nutmegs are roughly egg-shaped, about 20.5–30 mm (0.81–1.18 in) long and 15–18 mm (0.59–0.71 in) wide, weighing 5–10 g (0.18–0.35 oz) dried.
Mace is the spice made from the reddish seed covering (aril) of the nutmeg seed. Its flavour is similar to nutmeg but more delicate; it is used to flavour baked goods, meat, fish, vegetables and in preserving and pickling.
In the processing of mace, the crimson-colored aril is removed from the nutmeg seed that it envelops and is flattened out and dried for 10 to 14 days. Its color changes to pale yellow, orange, or tan. Whole dry mace consists of flat pieces—smooth, horny, and brittle—about 40 mm (1.6 in) long.
Botany and cultivation
The most important commercial species is the common, true or fragrant nutmeg, Myristica fragrans (Myristicaceae), native to the Moluccas (or Spice Islands) of Indonesia. It is also cultivated on Penang Island in Malaysia, in the Caribbean, especially in Grenada, and in Kerala, a state formerly known as Malabar in ancient writings as the hub of spice trading, in southern India. In the 17th-century work Hortus Botanicus Malabaricus, Hendrik van Rheede records that Indians learned the usage of nutmeg from the Indonesians through ancient trade routes.
Nutmeg trees are dioecious plants which are propagated sexually (seeds) and asexually (cuttings or grafting). Sexual propagation yields 50% male seedlings, which are unproductive. As there is no reliable method of determining plant sex before flowering in the sixth to eighth year, and sexual reproduction bears inconsistent yields, grafting is the preferred method of propagation. Epicotyl grafting (a variation of cleft grafting using seedlings), approach grafting, and patch budding have proved successful, with epicotyl grafting being the most widely adopted standard. Air layering is an alternative though not preferred method because of its low (35–40%) success rate.
The first harvest of nutmeg trees takes place seven to nine years after planting, and the trees reach full production after twenty years.
Nutmeg and mace have similar sensory qualities, with nutmeg having a slightly sweeter and mace a more delicate flavour. Mace is often preferred in light dishes for the bright orange, saffron-like hue it imparts. Nutmeg is used for flavouring many dishes, and nowadays is mostly found in Western supermarkets in ground or grated form. Whole nutmeg can also be ground at home using a grater specifically designed for nutmeg or a multi-purpose grating tool.
In Indonesian cuisine, nutmeg is used in various dishes, mainly in many spicy soups, such as some variant of soto, konro, oxtail soup, sup iga (ribs soup), bakso and sup kambing. It is also used in gravy for meat dishes, such as semur beef stew, ribs with tomato, and European derived dishes such as bistik (beef steak), rolade (minced meat roll) and bistik lidah (beef tongue steak).
In Indian cuisine, nutmeg is used in many sweet, as well as savoury, dishes (predominantly in Mughlai cuisine). In Kerala Malabar region, grated nutmeg is used in meat preparations and also sparingly added to desserts for the flavour. It may also be used in small quantities in garam masala. Ground nutmeg is also smoked in India.
In traditional European cuisine, nutmeg and mace are used especially in potato dishes and in processed meat products; they are also used in soups, sauces, and baked goods. It is also commonly used in rice pudding. In Dutch cuisine, nutmeg is added to vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and string beans. Nutmeg is a traditional ingredient in mulled cider, mulled wine, and eggnog. In Scotland, mace and nutmeg are usually both ingredients in haggis. In Italian cuisine, nutmeg is used as part of the stuffing for many regional meat-filled dumplings like tortellini, as well as for the traditional meatloaf. Nutmeg is a common spice for pumpkin pie and in recipes for other winter squashes, such as baked acorn squash. In the Caribbean, nutmeg is often used in drinks, such as the Bushwacker, Painkiller, and Barbados rum punch. Typically, it is a sprinkle on top of the drink.
The pericarp (fruit covering) is used to make jam, or is finely sliced, cooked with sugar, and crystallised to make a fragrant candy. Sliced nutmeg fruit flesh is made as manisan (sweets), either wet, which is seasoned in sugary syrup liquid, or dry coated with sugar, a dessert called manisan pala in Indonesia. In Penang cuisine, dried, shredded nutmeg rind with sugar coating is used as toppings on the uniquely Penang ais kacang. Nutmeg rind is also blended (creating a fresh, green, tangy taste and white colour juice) or boiled (resulting in a much sweeter and brown juice) to make iced nutmeg juice. In Kerala Malabar region of India, it is used for juice, pickles and chutney.
The essential oil obtained by steam distillation of ground nutmeg is used in the perfumery and pharmaceutical industries. The volatile fraction contains dozens of terpenes and phenylpropanoids, including d-pinene, limonene, d-borneol, l-terpineol, geraniol, safrol, and myristicin. In its pure form, myristicin is a toxin, and consumption of excessive amounts of nutmeg can result in myristicin poisoning.
The oil is colorless or light yellow, and smells and tastes of nutmeg. It is used as a natural food flavoring in baked goods, syrups, beverages, and sweets. It is used to replace ground nutmeg, as it leaves no particles in the food. The essential oil is also used in the manufacturing of toothpaste and cough syrups.
Nutmeg butter is obtained from the nut by expression. It is semisolid, reddish-brown in colour, and has the taste and smell of nutmeg itself.About 75% (by weight) of nutmeg butter is trimyristin, which can be turned into myristic acid, a 14-carbon fatty acid, which can be used as a replacement for cocoa butter, can be mixed with other fats like cottonseed oil or palm oil, and has applications as an industrial lubricant.
Until the mid-19th century, the small island group of the Banda Islands, which are also known under the name "Spice Islands," was the only location of the production of nutmeg and mace in the world. The Banda Islands are situated in the eastern part of Indonesia, in the province of Maluku. They consist of eleven small volcanic islands, called Neira, Gunung Api, Banda Besar, Rhun, Ai, Hatta, Syahrir, Karaka, Manukan, Nailaka and Batu Kapal, with a total approximate land area of 8,150 hectares.
Nutmeg is known to have been a prized and costly spice in European medieval cuisine as a flavouring, medicinal, and preservative agent. Saint Theodore the Studite (c. 758 – 826) allowed his monks to sprinkle nutmeg on their pease pudding when required to eat it. In Elizabethan times, because nutmeg was believed to ward off the plague, demand increased and its price skyrocketed.
Nutmeg was known as a valuable commodity by Muslim sailors from the port of Basra (including the fictional character Sinbad the Sailor in the One Thousand and One Nights). Nutmeg was traded by Arabs during the Middle Ages and sold to the Venetians for high prices, but the traders did not divulge the exact location of their source in the profitable Indian Ocean trade, and no European was able to deduce its location.
The Banda Islands became the scene of the earliest European ventures in Asia, in order to get a grip on the spice trade. In August 1511, Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca, which at the time was the hub of Asian trade, on behalf of the king of Portugal. In November of the same year, after having secured Malacca and learning of Banda's location, Albuquerque sent an expedition of three ships led by his friend António de Abreu to find it. Malay pilots, either recruited or forcibly conscripted, guided them via Java, the Lesser Sundas, and Ambon to the Banda Islands, arriving in early 1512. The first Europeans to reach the Banda Islands, the expedition remained for about a month, buying and filling their ships with Banda's nutmeg and mace, and with cloves in which Banda had a thriving entrepôt trade. An early account of Banda is in Suma Oriental, a book written by the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires, based in Malacca from 1512 to 1515. Full control of this trade by the Portuguese was not possible, and they remained participants without a foothold in the islands.
In order to obtain a monopoly on the production and trade of nutmeg, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) waged a bloody battle with the Bandanese in 1621. Historian Willard Hanna estimated that before this struggle the islands were populated by approximately 15,000 people, and only 1,000 were left (the Bandanese were killed, starved while fleeing, exiled or sold as slaves). The Company constructed a comprehensive nutmeg plantation system on the islands during the 17th century. It included the nutmeg plantations for spice production, several forts for the defense of the spices, and a colonial town for trading and governance. The Dutch were not the only occupants of this region, however. The British skilfully negotiated with the village leaders on the island Rhun to protect them from the Dutch in exchange for a monopoly on their nutmeg. The village leader of Rhun accepted King James I of England as their sovereign, but the English presence on Rhun only lasted until 1624. Control of the Banda Islands continued to be contested until 1667 when, in the Treaty of Breda, the British ceded Rhun to the Dutch in exchange for the island of Manhattan and its city New Amsterdam (later New York) in North America.
As a result of the Dutch interregnum during the Napoleonic Wars, the British invaded and temporarily took control of the Banda Islands from the Dutch and transplanted nutmeg trees, complete with soil, to Sri Lanka, Penang, Bencoolen, and Singapore. (There is evidence that the tree existed in Sri Lanka even before this.) From these locations they were transplanted to their other colonial holdings elsewhere, notably Zanzibar and Grenada. The national flag of Grenada, adopted in 1974, shows a stylised split-open nutmeg fruit. The Dutch retained control of the Spice Islands until World War II.
It has been suggested that Connecticut received its nickname ("the Nutmeg State", "Nutmegger") from the claim that some unscrupulous Connecticut traders would whittle "nutmeg" out of wood, creating a "wooden nutmeg", a term which later came to mean any type of fraud. This narrative may have to do with the issue that one has to grate to obtain the spice powder, not crack a nutmeg, and this may not have been widely known by some purchasers of the product.
World production of nutmeg is estimated to average between 10,000 and 12,000 tonnes per year, with annual world demand estimated at over 9,000 tonnes; production of mace is estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 tonnes. Indonesia, with world market share of 75%, and Grenada, with 20%, dominate production and exports of both products. Other producers include India, Malaysia (especially Penang, where the trees grow wild within untamed areas), Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Caribbean islands such as St. Vincent. The principal import markets are the European Community, the United States, Japan, and India. Singapore and the Netherlands are major re-exporters.
In the 19th century, nutmeg was thought to be an abortifacient, which led to numerous recorded cases of nutmeg poisoning. Although used as a folk treatment for other ailments, nutmeg has no proven medicinal value. In amounts exceeding its usual use as a spice, nutmeg may interact with anxiolytic drugs, produce allergic reactions, cause contact dermatitis, or evoke acute episodes of psychosis.
Psychoactivity and toxicity
In low doses, nutmeg produces no noticeable physiological or neurological response, but in large doses, both raw nutmeg freshly ground from kernels, as well as nutmeg oil, have psychoactive effects, which appear to derive from anticholinergic-like hallucinogenic mechanisms attributed to myristicin and elemicin. Myristicin—a monoamine oxidase inhibitor and psychoactive substance—can induce convulsions, palpitations, nausea, eventual dehydration, and generalized body pain when consumed in large amounts. Nutmeg poisonings occur by accidental consumption in children and by intentional abuse with other drugs in teenagers.
Varying considerably from person to person, nutmeg intoxication may occur with side effects, such as delirium, anxiety, confusion, headaches, nausea, dizziness, dry mouth, eye irritation, or amnesia. Intoxication takes several hours before maximum effect is experienced. The effects of nutmeg intoxication may last for several days.
Toxicity during pregnancy
Nutmeg was once considered an abortifacient, but may be safe for culinary use during pregnancy if used only in flavoring amounts. However, if consumed in large quantities, it contains hallucinogens that may affect the fetus, and consequently nutmeg is recommended for avoidance during pregnancy.
Toxicity to pets
While the spicy scent of nutmeg may be attractive to pets, there is potential for toxicity if large amounts are consumed.
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