One thing I didn't realize when I first started researching nutmeg, is that it's not the only spice that comes from that tree. The common commercial species is called Myristica fragrans, and it's an evergreen tree of Indonesia. Nutmeg comes from the nut of the tree, and another fine spice, mace, comes from the aril, the lacey red covering of the nut.
Nutmeg and mace have very similar qualities with nutmeg being sweeter than the more delicate mace. It's always used either ground or grated and is used for flavoring many kinds of dishes in the countries where it's available. No matter where it makes an appearance, it's a popular spice. Whether it's Indian, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, Middle Eastern... many cultures have found room in their cupboard for nutmeg.
Beyond flavoring food, nutmeg and most especially its essential oil, has found to be useful in perfumes, cosmetics and medicines including cough syrups. It's a very potent spice, and has actually been found to be lethal in large enough doses. It's been known to poison small some small animals from overconsumption. This same potency has led nutmeg to be used as an intoxicant in prisons, as recounted in the autobiography of Malcom X.
In small doses nutmeg seems to have no effect on the body, but large doses it can produce convulsions, palpatations, nausea, eventual dehydration and general body pain, and has also been known to be a strong deliriant. Fatal poisonings in human are extremely rare, with only 2 known reported cases, however it is wise to keep it away from pets. Nutmeg used to be considered an abortifacient, but is generally considered safe for culinary use during pregnancy. It does, however, inhibit the producting of prostaglandin and does contain hallucinogens that can affect the fetus if consumed in large quantities.
It is said that whatever has the power to harm has the power to heal, and this is generally true when talking about herbs and spices. Nutmeg is no exception. Like many other common spices, it was found to stimulate digestion and improve blood circulation. It also improved the appetite and prevented diarrhoea and vomiting. Studies have shown it has the potential to improve memory. This seems to be attributed to the plant's anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Also, like many spices, nutmeg has been found to have anitmicrobial properties. A study identified two antimicrobial agents in mace. These antimicrobial destroyed various common bacteria and ingestion of minute quantities of mace and nutmeg was found to strengthen the system, boosting immunity.
Nutmeg is a commonly used in baking but it is also enhances the flavor of savory dishes. Purchase whole nutmeg when possible and grate fresh as needed. Ground nutmeg loses its flavor quickly. As a culinary spice, nutmeg pairs well with most fruits including apples, cherries, raisins and pears. For vegetables try using it with broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, pumpkin, spinach, squash, mushrooms, parsnisps, greens or sweet potatoes. If you're feeling a bit adventurous try using nutmeg with cheese, eggs (yes eggs. Try adding a bit to your next omelet. Some people swear by it,) and works well with most meats, including lamb, sausages and ham, pork, fish, chicken and veal. Naturally nutmeg works well for desserts and works well in recipes for custards, mulled wine and chocolate. It combines well with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves.
Cooking tip: When cooking with whole nutmegs, remove nuts from the dish before serving. Add freshly grated nutmeg at the end of cooking as the heat destroys a lot of the flavor.
And like most other spices, I also am fascinated with their possible spiritual applications and/or superstitions surrounding them. Nutmeg is the subject of much folklore and superstition and is said to possess or impart magical powers.
There is some evidence that Roman priests may have burned nutmeg as a form of incense, although this is disputed. It is known to have been used as a prized and costly spice in the Middle Ages.
A nutmeg should be placed on the mouth of a person who had a stroke to cure a twisted mouth.
|A hand-written petition for lottery wining, written on |
gold-foil Chinese joss paper, with black cat hair, an
alligator foot, a silver dime, bone dice, and a nutmeg, that
will go into the making of a lucky gambler's mojo bag
A sixteenth century monk is once record as advising young men to carry vials of nutmeg oil and at the appropriate time, to anoint their genitals for virility that would see them through several days. (Hmm... imagine that.)
It was also believed that tucking a single nutmeg underneath the left armpit before attending a social event would attract admirers.
At one time nutmegs were used as amulets and when worn in a small pouch were said to protect against a wide variety of dangers and evils; from boils to rheumatism to broken bones and other misfortunes.
In the Middle Ages carved wooden imitations were even sold in the streets. People carried nutmegs everywhere and many wore little graters made of silver, ivory or wood, often with a compartment for the nuts.
It's no surprise that nutmeg was such a treasured spice. While it is common and affordable today, this wasn't always the case. In fact, throughout history it has always been quite expensive. It's incredible when you consider however that just a few hundred years ago, a small bag of nutmeg could have brought enough money to make the holder very well off.