Tracing The Origins Of Nutmeg: Here's What You Should Know

We are all familiar with nutmeg as a common spice and food flavour, frequently used in combination with cinnamon. But the composition and background of this warming spice are also highly fascinating. Well first of all, nutmeg is actually two different spices; mace, which is the seed's outer shell, comes from the nutmeg fruit. Because of their high value, conflicts were battled to control commerce in these two spices over the course of their lengthy and fascinating histories, which span from Indonesia to England. 

Nutmeg trees are evergreen and have oblong egg-shaped leaves and small, bell-like yellow flowers that produce a distinctive aroma in the blooming season. The fruit is a bright yellow colour with red and green patterns that resemble giant plums or apricots. The fruit's outer fleshy layer, which is typically candied or pickled as a snack in Malaysia, explodes to reveal the seed as it ripens. The mace section of the nutmeg, known as an aril, is the crimson membrane that covers the seed. The interior nut is then allowed to rattle inside the shell after the seed has been dried for up to two months. The precious edible nutmeg in the shape of an egg is then exposed when the shell is removed. (Second nuts are squeezed to produce oil that is utilised in the food and fragrance industries).  


The nutmeg tree, also known by its botanical name Myristica fragrans, is indigenous to Banda, the largest of Indonesia's Molucca spice islands. The Latin words nux, which means nut, and muscat, which means musky, are the roots of the English term nutmeg. When Roman author Pliny describes a tree bearing nuts with two flavours, there is evidence that both nutmeg and mace were discovered as early as the first century A.D. Later, prior to his coronation, Emperor Henry VI ordered the streets of Rome to be nutmegged. Nutmegs were introduced to Constantinople by Arab traders in the sixth century. But nutmeg didn't start triggering wars until the 1600s. For the sole purpose of regulating nutmeg production in the East Indies, the Dutch engaged in a brutal conflict that resulted in the murder and enslavement of the Banda Island's population. The Dutch later exchanged possession of Manhattan for a British-owned island that produced nutmeg as part of discussions over the island. The spice islands were under Dutch rule until World War II. 

You might be thinking why a spice we use to season food and drinks would result in such destruction. It turns out that nutmeg was a popular hallucinogen among the wealthy; the intoxicating spice could make you feel as though you were floating. It was valued for its medicinal and culinary properties as well. Half a kilogram of nutmeg was equivalent to three sheep or a cow in price in the fourteenth century. The Dutch deliberately set fire to entire nutmeg warehouses in Amsterdam, keeping the price of the spice artificially high. In 1760, the price of nutmeg in London ranged between 85 and 90 shillings per pound. 

The nutmeg monopoly held by the Dutch was broken when Frenchman Pierre Poivre shipped nutmeg seedlings to Mauritius, where they thrived. The nutmeg tree was introduced by the British East India Company to many places, including Penang, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, and, most importantly, Grenada, where it has become the nation's emblem and is proudly displayed on the flag's red, yellow, and green.