The nutmeg tree is a tropical dark-leafed evergreen tree native to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (Spice Islands) of Indonesia. However, today, it is cultivated widely throughout the world.
A nutmeg tree can grow to a height of at least 65 feet. Trees begin to yield fruit after about eight years of growth. A tree reaches its prime in about 25 years and will often bear fruit for 60 years or longer.
The tree has oblong, egg-shaped leaves and produces small, bell-like yellow flowers that give off a distinct aroma when in bloom. The fruit is light yellow in color with red and green markings. The fruit is the source of two popular spices: nutmeg and mace.
Nutmeg comes from the inner seed of the fruit. Dried nutmegs are grayish brown ovals about the size of an apricot pit with furrowed surfaces. In different countries, the name nutmeg is also used to refer to a variety of other types of fruits or seeds.
Mace is a yellowish tan to reddish tan spice obtained from the dried aril (bright red net-like sheath) which covers the nutmeg seed. Mace was once a highly revered spice. Though lesser-known today, it can be used much like nutmeg.
Although their flavor is somewhat similar, nutmeg is said to have a warmer, spicier flavor than mace. However, for some chefs, mace is perfect where nutmeg would be too heavy.
Nutmeg has a long culinary history and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. It is used to flavor many kinds of baked goods, confections, puddings, potatoes, meats, sauces and vegetables. In the United States, it is a holiday favorite in pumpkin pie and other pumpkin treats as well as in eggnog drinks.
Nutmeg spice can be purchased either as a whole nut or as a ground powder. Although the ground form is much more convenient to use, it tends to start losing its flavor and aroma over a rather short time period. Whole nutmeg has an indefinite shelf life and can be ground just prior to use which helps to retain its full flavor and aroma.
Historically, nutmeg has been used as a sachet. The Romans used it as incense. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the common cold. It was even believed to have the power to prevent the bubonic plague that killed many thousands of people during this time period.