Learning about Spices
What is a spice?
Why were spices important?
Sources of spices
Perfumes and Incenses
Use of spices as aphrodisiacs
Use of spices as medicines
A spice timeline
Table of Spices
Frankincense and Myrrh
Nutmeg and Mace
Contacts and Acknowledgments
NUTMEG and MACE
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|Genus Species||Myristica fragrans
Moluccas, especially the Banda Islands|
Indonesia, Grenada, Saint Vincent and other Leeward Islands, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Trinidad|
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The quintessential spice is nutmeg: it was a highly valued exotic flavor source that grew only in the remote Spice Islands. It is not generally known that nutmeg is the kernel of the apricot-like fruit of the tree, Myristica fragrans, and that it is enclosed in a hard seed-case covered with an arillus; this soft membranous coat is the spice, mace. It is astounding to learn how popular these two spices were in the 15th-17th centuries, especially when compared to how little they are appreciated today.|
Nutmeg may have been a rare delicacy in ancient Greece and Rome, although there is little evidence of its use in the food or drink of those times. Nutmeg became more familiar to Byzantine traders who obtained it from Arabs, and its name may be derived from the Arabic word “mesk”, which is related to the word musky, meaning fragrant. In old French, “mug” meant musk, and the French term for the musk-nut, noix muguette, became the English word nutmeg. Mace may have had a similar etymologic derivation.
The availability of the nutmeg in Europe increased once Crusaders learned to appreciate it in Middle Eastern cooking, and Venetian spice traders then ensured that it became familiar to banqueters of the 12th century. It was generally imported with its companion from the Spice Islands, the aromatic clove.
The exaggerated desire for nutmeg, mace and clove by the 15th century made the Moluccan Islands a major target of Portugese explorers. In 1512 an expedition was sent by Albuquerque, the commander of the Portugese fleet in the strategic port of Malacca in the Malay peninsula, to locate the fabled Spice Islands. The commander of two boats, Francisco Serrâo, was the first European to gather nutmegs and cloves from their original source in a select few of the thousand or so of islands in the Moluccan sea. Nutmeg grew mainly on two of the seven Banda Islands in the southeast Moluccas, while cloves were found particularly in Ternate and Timore.
As an outcome of their fateful discovery, the Moluccan Islands remained under Portugese control until these colonials were ousted by the Dutch in the first quarter of the 17th century. The Dutch policy of harsh monopolistic source control resulted in nutmeg trees being destroyed on all islands other than the precious plantations of Banda and Ambon. The Dutch were eventually replaced by the British for a few years at the end of the 18th century, but by that time the Spice Islands had yielded their unique spice trees to Mauritius (controlled by the French), Malaya and the West Indies. Eventually, the Caribbean island of Grenada became an important source of cultivated nutmeg trees.
The taste for nutmeg and mace has varied over the millennia. Although long used as a food flavor in Asia, these spices were mainly appreciated for adding to alcoholic drinks in ancient Rome. In medieval and renaissance banquets, exotic spices, including mace and nutmeg, along with the popular cinnamon, were added in large amounts to various dishes. Fashionable French gourmets would bring their own nutmeg graters to add their nutmeg to appropriately improve on a wealthy host’s dinner. Such affectations generally disappeared in the 18th century, when attention was shifted to the newly fashionable coffee, chocolate and tobacco. Currently, the Dutch maintain a liking for nutmeg and mace, whereas in the cuisines of most other European and American countries, these flavors have a minor role. Perhaps European nutmeg, which comes from the Moluccan Islands, is of better quality than U.S. nutmegs that are grown in Grenada. Furthermore, ground nutmeg and pulverized mace rapidly lose their volatile oleoresins, and thus only freshly ground specimens are of major gustatory value.
Nutmeg is mostly used in cola drinks, in confectionary and holiday dishes, such as eggnog. However, the more aromatic mace is characteristically used in making sausages and other prepared meats, and in donuts, where it provides a recognizable flavor. The former magical and panacea-like properties have declined, and neither spice is utilized in medical practice today. See a list of spices by Taste and Hotness.
The dried seed is used for nutmeg and its dried covering (aril) produces mace.|
Large amounts of nutmeg can provide atropine-like hallucinatory experiences, and it has been reported that this agent enjoyed a reputation as a recreational stimulant in some U.S. prisons. It is likely that the active agent is myristicin. This compound is also present in parsley, dill and star anisè, but in very small amounts. Interestingly, the Czech physiologist who studied vision, Purkinje, reported on his own experiences of nutmeg-induced hallucinations. Some may feel that the prior exalted role of nutmeg and spice in the culinary repertoire represents a mass hallucinatory response to modish fashions.|
See chemicals in spices.
“Nutmeg [and mace] possess like the other spices, aromatic, stimulant, and carminative properties; but in large doses it is narcotic, producing effects, it is said, similar to those of camphor. It has been used with advantage in mild cases of diarrhea, flatulent colic, and certain forms of dyspepsia…”|
Bentley, Robert and Henry Trimen. Medicinal Plants; being descriptions with original figures of the principal plants employed in medicine and an account of the characters, properties, and uses of their parts and products of medicinal value. London, Churchill, 1880. (WZ 295 B556m 1880)
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