We are familiar with nutmeg as a ubiquitous spice in fall desserts, often in combination with cinnamon, as well as the flavoring in eggnog. But this warm spice also has a very interesting composition and history. First, nutmeg is actually not one spice, but two; mace is derived from the nutmeg fruit, as it is the outer covering of the nutmeg seed. These two spices have a long and interesting history— traveling from Indonesia to England—and because of their high value, wars were fought to control trade.
How Nutmeg and Mace Grow
The nutmeg tree is evergreen, with oblong egg-shaped leaves and small, bell-like light yellow flowers that give off a distinct aroma when in bloom. The fruit is light yellow with red and green markings, resembling an apricot or a large plum. As the fruit matures, the outer fleshy covering (which is candied or pickled as snacks in Malaysia) bursts to reveal the seed. The seed is covered with red membranes called an aril, which is the mace portion of the nutmeg. The seed is then dried for up to 2 months until the inner nut rattles inside the shell. The shell is then removed to reveal the valuable egg-shaped edible nutmeg. (Second-rate nuts are pressed for the oil, which is used in perfumes and in the food industry.)
The Origin of Nutmeg and Mace
Botanically known as Myristica fragrans, the nutmeg tree originates in Banda, the largest of the Molucca spice islands of Indonesia. The English word nutmeg comes from the Latin nux, meaning nut, and muscat, meaning musky.
There is evidence that both nutmeg and mace were discovered as early as the 1st century A.D. when Roman author Pliny speaks of a tree bearing nuts with two flavors. Later, Emperor Henry VI had the streets of Rome fumigated with nutmegs before his coronation. In the 6th century, nutmegs were brought by Arab merchants to Constantinople. But it was the 1600s when nutmeg became worthy of starting wars. The Dutch waged a bloody war, including the massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of the island of Banda, just to control nutmeg production in the East Indies. Later, during negotiations over the Island of Manhattan, the Dutch traded the island for control over a nutmeg-producing island owned by the British. The Dutch held control of the spice islands until World War II.
The Value of Nutmeg and Mace
You may be wondering why a spice we use to sprinkle over a Christmastime beverage would cause so much blood and turmoil. Turns out nutmeg was fashionable among the wealthy as a hallucinogenic; the intoxicating spice could make you feel as if you were floating. It also was prized for its curative and culinary uses.
In the 14th century, half a kilogram of nutmeg cost as much as three sheep or a cow. In 1760, the price of nutmeg in London was 85 to 90 shillings per pound, a price kept artificially high by the Dutch voluntarily burning full warehouses of nutmegs in Amsterdam.
The Spices' Migration
Frenchman Pierre Poivre transported nutmeg seedlings to Mauritius where they flourished, aiding in ending the Dutch monopoly of the spice. The British East India Company brought the nutmeg tree to Penang, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, and most notably Grenada, where it is the national symbol and proudly emblazoned on the country's red, yellow, and green flag.
World History Encyclopedia. European discovery & conquest of the spice islands.
Smith M. Nutmeg. In: Encyclopedia of Toxicology. Elsevier; 2014:630-631. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-386454-3.00762-4
Brixius D. A hard nut to crack: nutmeg cultivation and the application of natural history between the Maluku islands and Isle de France (1750s–1780s). Br J Hist Sci. 2018;51(4):585-606. doi:10.1017/S0007087418000754
The Indo Project. Nutmeg: a spice with a secret that isn’t so nice.