By Emily Eggleston
Nutmeg is the spice of holiday cheer. And it is one of the most beautiful ingredients in my kitchen.
Slicing into a whole nutmeg reveals the rivers of dark brown winding across a light tan surface. And from that surface pours a watershed of flavor.
Until mid 19th century, the only producer of nutmeg was a small group of Indonesian islands, the Banda Islands. Then the British managed to transplant a few of the lucrative trees to well-suited colonial climates. One of their transplant locations was Granada which is now the second largest producer of nutmeg. Indonesia still reigns the world of nutmeg by supplying 75% of the market and Granada comes in next with 20%. Interestingly, the flag of Granada featured nutmeg for a short time (1967-1974) before they gained independence and crafted a new flag.
I can attest that the spice has spread considerably since it’s first transplanting, as I ran into it on a farm in Costa Rica. When I was touring that tropical farm, I feasted my eyes on plants growing pepper, ginger, cola nuts and lots of other oft eaten but never seen vegetation. It was fun and fascinating. The nutmeg was one of the neatest.
Nutmeg is actually the seed of its tree. When our guide showed us a fresh, supple nutmeg seed, around it wove a plump, glossy red web. The red tentacles wrapping around the spices hard egg-shaped body surprised me. And the surprise morphed into delight as I learned that the bright encasement is also a spice: mace.
When nutmeg is harvested the mace is removed and dried. I admit that I use nutmeg more often than mace, so I will refer to another source to describe its flavor. Culinarycafe.com says that mace is similar to nutmeg but more pungent and that it “lends a warm, fragrant, oldworld spiciness to many baked goods and sweets.” A couple of online culinary information sources claim that mace is what makes donuts taste like donuts. After sifting through a few donut recipes, it seems that only a few call for mace, and they are labeled old-fashioned, classic or traditional recipes. More common is the inclusion of nutmeg in donut recipes, and sometimes neither.
The botanical descriptor for mace is aril, which is “a fleshy, usually brightly colored cover of a seed, arising from the hilum or funiculus” according to freedictionary.com. (That last bit, “hilum or funiculus” just means where the seed is attached to the fruit.) Other examples of arils are the edible part of a pomegranate and the red berry-like coating on yew bush seeds.