Myristica fragrans is unique amongst spice plants as it produces two distinct spices, nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the seed kernel inside the fruit; mace is the lacy covering or aril that surrounds the seed.
Nutmeg is indigenous to the Moluccas or Spice Islands of Indonesia but is now also grown in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the West Indies. Indeed, nutmeg is so important to the island nation of Grenada that its flag is made up of the green, yellow and red colours of the plant and includes a nutmeg image in one corner. In 1512 Vasco de Gama claimed the Moluccas for the Portuguese then in 1602 the Dutch took control. Growth of nutmeg was restricted by them to two islands within the Moluccas in order to control supply and maintain high prices for the spices. Subsequently the French managed to smuggle out nutmeg seeds to start a plantation in Mauritius. In 1796 the English took control of the Moluccas and spread cultivation to Sri Lanka and the West Indies.
At harvest time, the outer husk is removed to expose the mace and nutmeg seed. The mace is removed and flattened and dried in a few hours. The nutmeg seeds are dried for up to 6 weeks until the nutmegs rattle in their inner shell. This outer shell is removed to expose the inner seed. These inner seeds are then graded according to size and quality. The yield of nutmeg is much greater than of mace – approximately in the proportion of 100 to 1 – and accordingly mace has much greater value.
Mace is scarlet but turns red-orange or orange-yellow over time. Nutmeg seeds are hard and light brown in colour. They have a similar aroma and taste, sweet, aromatic and nutty. Nutmeg is used in both sweet and savoury dishes from egg custards to cakes to pasta dishes to vegetable dishes. Mace is considered to be a refined version of nutmeg and features in more delicate recipes such as fish stocks and soufflés.
Nutmeg is used in Oriental medicine to treat indigestion and flatulence and is prescribed as an aphrodisiac. Nutmeg is poisonous in large doses. In large quantities it is hallucinogenic and an excess of it can be fatal.