Nutmeg and Mace

NUTMEG and MACE (Myristica fragrans – Myristicaceae)

The trees which produce both nutmeg and mace are large evergreens native to the Moluccas but which are now grown elsewhere in the tropics, notably Grenada in the West Indies. The trees can reach a height of 18-24 m (60-80 ft), and are either male or female. One male per ten to twelve female trees is the norm in plantations, resulting in them being known as harem trees! The trees do not flower or fruit until about eight or nine years old (thus cannot be sexed until then) and yield about 100 fruits; by the time they are 30 years old, they can yield an average crop of 3 – 4,000 fruit a year. Trees (Myristica fragrans) can bear for a good 70 years.

Yellowish flowers are followed by large yellow apricot- or plum-like fruits. When they split open, these reveal the black seed (the nutmeg) wrapped in its red lacy aril (the mace). Both spices are dried separately, and the major producers are the Moluccas and Grenada, the latter exporting some 2,000 tonnes to the US each year. Nutmeg has always been more available and popular than mace, which is much more expensive; this is not surprising as mace equals one-fifth of the weight of the whole seed, and only 75 g (3 oz) mace are gained from 100 nutmegs.

It is thought that the ancients knew nutmeg and mace, but by the twelfth century, the spices had definitely reached the Mediterranean, brought by Arab traders. Not long after, the School of Salerno recorded the poisonous effect of using too much nutmeg; they praised its cardiac effects, but recorded haemorrhage and fatalities if used in large doses. ‘Unica nux prodest, nocet altera, tertia necat’ (One nut is good, another is less good, the third kills).

For years, both spices were the monopoly of first the Portuguese and then the Dutch, until Pierre Poivre smuggled some young trees from the Spice Islands. When the Moluccas were part of the British Empire, trees were transplanted to the West Indies, where they thrived.
In the eighteenth century, nutmeg and mace were included in French codices and in the nineteenth century, Pulligny wrote a book of876 pages entirely devoted to the nutmeg tree and its spices.

In folk medicine, carrying a nutmeg in the pocket is reputedly a cure for lumbago and rheumatism.

The main producers of the oils are the USA, Canada and Singapore (of nutmeg respectively 20 – 30 tonnes, 5 – 10 tonnes, and 1 – 2 tonnes per year, 1987 figures). The USA is the largest consumer of nutmeg oil (30 tonnes), followed by Britain with 10 tonnes. A little is used in the perfumery industry, which leaves one with the worrying question (see below) as to how the remainder is used – by the food industry?


Description: Nutmeg oil is steam-distilled from nuts crushed to a butter; oil from the islands is re-distilled in France to improve the quality. Mace is steam-distilled from the arils. Both oils are similar, very pale yellow and very fluid. Nutmeg smells spicy, pleasant and hot, mace very strongly spicy. Both oils change as they become old, turning dark brown and smelling disagreeable, acidic and turpentine-like – do not buy or use if like this.

The principal constituents: Nutmeg oil and mace oil both contain myristicine, with small quantities of borneol, camphene, cymol, dipentene, geraniol, linalool, pinene, sapol and terpineol, and acetic, butyric, caprilic, formic and myristic acids.

Dangers: Myristicine is narcotic, hallucinogenic and very toxic, especially during pregnancy (traces are also found in black pepper, carrot, parsley, and celery seeds). So, I do not recommend that anyone other than practitioners use either mace oil or nutmeg oil in therapy. Neither oil must be left where children could find it, and the oils must never be used in cooking. Side effects of too much of either of the spices alone include severe headaches, cramps and nausea (the spices have been used as a drug for their hallucinogenic properties); ingestion of the concentrated essential oil could be fatal.

I do not use either oil much as nutmeg, in particular, is too hot for the skin, and can cause rashes and allergies. (In Indonesia, workers guard against the irritant properties of the nuts themselves by dusting their faces with sago-palm powder.) I would much rather use the undoubted therapeutic properties of both spices in cooking, than use eitheressential oil in any way.


In illness
In the eighteenth century, in France, mace was classified as a tonic and stimulant, as a cardiac tonic, as an aid for general fatigue, and as a brain stimulant. It continues to be revered for its digestive properties, for people who cannot assimilate food, for wind, and for pre-menstrual pain. Nutmeg too is a tonic, good for the heart, for convalescents, and for general fatigue. Nutmeg has a reputation as an abortificant (it was once used to ease labour in Malaysia), so should be avoided in pregnancy.

(See also backache.)

In cookery
Both spices can be used – but in moderation – to enliven food and do you good at the same time. To allay any fears, you would have to ingest at least two whole nutmegs before any hallucinatory effects were noticed.

Mace is available in blades (the dried aril itself) or as a powder (it is impossible to grind at home). It loses its aroma very quickly, so buy a little at a time. It is used in cakes and sweet dishes, and in some sausages and curry dishes. I like to use it as an aid to slow digestion, and as a good stimulant of the nervous system, in milky rice puddings, and in the egg mix for omelettes along with some coriander leaves.

Nutmeg, too, comes ground or whole, being best ground freshly from the whole nut on special nutmeg graters, for spicing of egg dishes, sauces (a white or cheese sauce for cauliflower, for instance), and cakes. It goes particularly well with onions and spinach, and mashed potatoes benefit from a good sprinkling. Nutmeg is included also in sausages, ravioli, and many spiced Eastern dishes. A sprinkling of nutmeg on a hot drink – hot chocolate, say – can have pick-me-up properties (not what you want at night, unless you need to work late).

In Indonesia, a candy is made from the tiny amount of pulp sur¬rounding the mace and nutmeg; in the Caribbean, this outer pulp is fermented to make a brandy-like drink.

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