Mace is one of those spices we may all have heard of but aren't really sure what it is. It is actually the lacy coating (called the aril) that is found on a nutmeg seed. This lacy aril, which is red, is removed by hand from the outer shell of the nutmeg and then dried, becoming a yellowish-brown spice. Mace's flavor is described as a combination of cinnamon and pepper and a more pungent version of nutmeg. It is used in baked goods, particularly donuts and cakes, as well as puddings and custards. But the spice can also be a part of cheese dishes, souffles, sauces, soups, poultry, and fish recipes. It especially complements dishes with cherries or chocolate. Mace is sold in whole pieces called blades or in the more commonly-found ground form.
The Origin of Mace
The color of the spice can often help you determine the origin of mace. While orange-red blades tend to be from Indonesia, orange-yellow blades most likely come from Grenada, where mace is the national symbol and proudly emblazoned on the country's red, yellow, and green flag. It is botanically known as Myristica fragrans, the nutmeg tree that produces mace originates in Banda, the largest of the Molucca spice islands of Indonesia. The English word nutmeg comes from the Latin words nux, meaning nut, and muscat, meaning musky.
Mace in History
There are several mentions of nutmeg and mace throughout history. In the first century A.D., Roman author Pliny speaks of a tree bearing nuts with two flavors. 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. And in the 14th century, it was noted that half a kilogram of nutmeg cost as much as three sheep or a cow.
Just to control nutmeg production in the East Indies, the Dutch waged a bloody war, including the massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of the island of Banda. 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 Dutch held control of the spice islands until World War II.
Use, Storage, and Substitutions
Mace is typically harder to find and more expensive than the more popular warming, highly aromatic spices. However, you will find it as a component of certain spice mixtures, including curry powder, garam masala, and ras el hanout. Not surprisingly, it figures prominently in Indian, Caribbean, Moroccan, and Asian cuisine, and is also used in Dutch, French, and British cooking.
Ground mace has a longer shelf-life than most other spices when stored properly in a tightly-sealed jar or container in a cool, dark place. When comparing ground mace to mace blades, 1 teaspoon of ground mace equals 1 tablespoon of mace blades. Nutmeg may be substituted for mace in a pinch and vice versa, but obviously, the flavor of the dish will be affected. Another substitute for ground mace is ground allspice.