Nutmeg and Mace

The ancient world was rife with mythic twins: Apollo and Artemis, Romulus and Remus, Castor and Pollux. But there is another pair of twins that, while eluding the ancients, once seemed almost as mythic as these legendary pairs—twins that engendered centuries of argosies and adventures. The fragrant, flowering evergreen tree known as Myristica fragrans is the mother of these twins. When the fleshy, peach-like fruit of this tree is mature, it splits open, revealing a brown nut surrounded by a bright red web. The web, or aril, is separated from the seed, and both are dried. The aril, which turns somewhat brownish as it dries, is the spice known as mace, while the dark, hard nut is nutmeg.

Nutmeg and mace were being traded in Asia long before Europeans knew these spices existed. A few scholars maintain that the ancient world did know of nutmeg, but there is little evidence— and the strongest evidence against knowledge of the spice is that the major recorders of life in the ancient world did not mention it, and they mentioned everything about food and spice. It might have been given as a gift to some ruler or other, probably in North Africa, given the fact that most trade with Asia was handled by Arab spice merchants who traded all across North Africa, but it didn’t get to Greece or Rome. However, it had reached Constantinople by the 9th century, as it was recorded that St. Theodore the Studite allowed monks to use nutmeg on their pease porridge on meat-free days.

Nutmeg probably didn’t reach Europe until the Middle Ages, making it the last of what were then known as the “noble spices” to be introduced. The first reliable report of nutmeg being used in Europe is from 1190, when the streets of Rome were scented (or, more accurately, fumigated) with spices, including “India nuts,” as nutmeg is sometimes called. It seems likely that, as with other spices, it was Arab traders who carried nutmegs to the Middle East and Italians who carried them throughout Europe.

The Portuguese had located the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, by 1511, sighting (or perhaps just smelling) cloves growing in the northern islands. However, no Europeans saw nutmegs growing until 1521, when Magellan’s expedition (minus Magellan by this point, as he’d been killed in the Philippines) reached the Banda Islands, in the southern Moluccas. The Banda Islands were the only place in the world where nutmeg and mace grew. (The northern Moluccas were the only place in the world where cloves grew, which, though they had reached Europe earlier than nutmegs, were still something Magellan and company were looking for.)

As with other spices from the great Asian spice trade, there were centuries of “trade wars.” The Portuguese had laid claim to the Moluccas as soon as they’d first seen them. After Magellan’s voyage, despite the fact that Magellan was sailing for Spain, the Portuguese took control of the Spice Islands, going so far as to circulate false maps of the region, so that ships in pursuit of nutmegs would end up on the rocks. The Dutch eventually wrested control from the Portuguese, and this was followed by centuries of other countries trying to grow nutmeg somewhere else, to break the Dutch monopoly. (The Dutch guarded the seeds so closely, they even sent search parties out to check nearby islands, to look for anywhere birds might have dropped fruit. But then, spices were big money.)

The only real success growing nutmeg/mace outside the Moluccas was on the West Indian island of Grenada, after the British broke the Dutch stranglehold on the Spice Islands. Even today, pretty much all of the world’s genuine nutmeg still comes from either the Moluccas or Grenada. (Nutmeg is so important to Grenada that a nutmeg is featured on the country’s flag. Granada produces more than 40 percent of the world’s supply.)

Most of the spices that became popular during the Middle Ages have never really gone out of vogue. However, the 1200s through the 1700s were a period of almost unparalleled passion for spices. Chaucer recorded “nutemuge put in ale” and Boileau opined, “Do you like nutmeg? It’s in everything.” In England in the 1700s, people would carry their own personal nutmeg graters with them to parties. Whole nutmegs would be passed, so that each diner could use his or her personal grater to add a bit more freshly grated nutmeg to a dish that probably already had nutmeg, as well as other spices, in it. There were times when mace, which is hotter than nutmeg (and, in Britain, considered the finer of the two), almost eclipsed its fraternal twin, but nutmeg ended up on top.

That said, while nutmeg has a slight edge on mace, the two spices are often used together. In England, if you encounter “mixed spice” or “pudding spice,” you’re looking at a blend of nutmeg and mace.

Of course, with the British growing nutmeg trees in Granada, it’s not too surprising that nutmeg and mace became popular in the American colonies. To be perfectly honest, before we decided to throw off British rule, most colonists were trying very hard to be as British as possible, and that would of course include utilizing these popular spices in whatever way the British did. The trade was lively enough that one state–Connecticut–ended up with a spice-related nickname: The Nutmeg State, with citizens sometimes called Nutmeggers. (There are two stories about how Connecticut got this nickname: One is that the people of Connecticut were so shrewd that they were able to make and sell wooden nutmegs to unsuspecting buyers. The other tale is that purchasers just thought the nutmegs were wooden, because they did not expect a spice to be so hard to grind.)

The Latin name for nutmeg is Nux muscatus. In most languages the nut’s name has just morphed from the Latin. In fact, though it’s harder to see the connection, even the English nutmeg comes from the Latin, with Middle English notemuge being derived from the Old Provençal noz muscada. Likewise for mace, which was macir in Latin and had become mace by Middle English.

Both nutmeg and mace appear in both sweet and savory dishes. Many Americans think they don’t know mace, because it’s less likely to be in most people’s spice racks, but it offers its distinctive flavor to everything from donuts to hotdogs. Nutmeg is usually kept on hand for eggnog, but it also appears in some classic savory sauces, as well.

Both spices lose flavor quickly once ground, so if possible, at least with nutmeg, get yourself a grinder. (Mace is almost always sold ground, though one can buy “blades,” but whole nutmeg is generally easy to find. You’ll be amazed at the difference grinding your own makes.)

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Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, Geography, History, Language, Travel

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