I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg
And a golden pear
Nutmeg is a fragrant, slightly sweet spice that has been used for hundreds of years in Britain and Western Europe, and was among those spices viciously fought over in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is in fact said that the Dutch made an exchange with England in the 1660s, trading Manhattan for the last nutmeg-producing island under British control, along with a sugar-producing territory in South America…
Nutmeg and Mace both come from the nutmeg tree; nutmeg is the seed, while mace is the dried “lacy” reddish covering (the aril) of the seed. The word originates from the Old French “nois mugede” and medieval Latin “nux muscata”.
The fruit of the nutmeg tree looks like an apricot, and when ripe it splits to reveal the red aril encasing the shiny seed, or “nut”. The mace is removed and dried, as are the nutmegs – traditionally in the sun. The process is labour-intensive, since they need turning regularly for several weeks. At the end of the drying, the hard seed coat is split open to extract the kernels – what we know as nutmegs – which have shrunk and are loose in the shell.
The nutmeg tree is indigenous to the Spice Islands in Indonesia and the Caribbean. However, the Arabs who traded this spice in Venice did not reveal where it originated for many years, and were able to demand high prices for it. In the 16th and 17th centuries the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, became major traders in this and other spices, such as cloves. Wars were fought, and warehouses of nutmeg were burnt to keep prices artificially high; barely comprehensible to us in present times, yet simple spices which we take for granted nowadays played such a great role in the building of colonies and empires, and in our trading and shipping history.
The king of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me
All for the sake of
My little nut tree
It is said that the King of Spain’s daughter referred to here was Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. So the rhyme goes back to the early 16th century.
Did you know “to nutmeg” is actually a verb? I had no idea….
It means either: to flavour with nutmeg, as in She decided the eggnog was lacking in flavor, so she decided to nutmeg it heavily.
Or: in soccer, to play the ball between the legs of the opponent
I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.
I have never used mace, but apparently it has a similar but superior flavour to nutmeg. For as long as I remember I have put a little nutmeg, freshly grated, in milk puddings, egg dishes, or with carrots and spinach. More recently I have used it in a zucchini cake, and in a curry! The uses are thus varied. I have also heard that consuming large quantities of it can lead to intoxication and hallucinations! (Read here)
Do you use nutmeg? And if so, what dishes do you add it to?
I’ll post a recipe I use it in very soon!