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Nutmeg

Saturday, 15 May 2010

nutmegNutmeg is the common name for a dark-leaved evergreen tree, Myristica fragans, that is cultivated for two spices derived from its fruit, «nutmeg» and «mace». Nutmeg is produced from the dried, ripe, inner seed and mace from the seed coat (arillus) that separates the seed from its outer husk. The term nutmeg also refers to just the seed of this tree or to the ground or grated spice developed from this seed. In addition, nutmeg is the name applied to members of the genus Myristica in general, while the family to which the genus belongs, Myristicaceae, is known as the nutmeg family.

It is known to have been used as a prized and costly spice in medieval cuisine. For centuries, the monarchies have fought to gain possession over the territories where it was grown and the right to trade in it exclusively. Nutmeg was traded by Arabs during the Middle Ages in the profitable Indian Ocean trade. In the late 15-th century, Portugal started trading in the Indian Ocean, including nutmeg, under the Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain. But full control of this trade was not possible and they remained largely participants; therefore the Portuguese failed to gain a foothold in the islands themselves.

The trade in nutmeg later became dominated by the Dutch in the 17-th century. The British and Dutch engaged in prolonged struggles and intrigue to gain control of Run Island, then the only source of nutmegs. At the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War the Dutch gained control of Run in exchange for the British controlling New Amsterdam (New York) in North America.

The Dutch managed to establish control over the Banda Islands after an extended military campaign. As a result of the Dutch interregnum during the Napoleonic Wars, the English took temporary control of the Banda Islands from the Dutch and transplanted nutmeg trees to their own colonial holdings elsewhere, notably Zanzibar and Grenada. Other producers include India, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Caribbean islands.

Nutmeg prefers hot, humid conditions of the tropics and usually grows to 12 to 20 meters. The bark is a dark grey-green which produces a yellow juice which oxidizes to red. It is thickly branched with dense foliage with tough, dark green oval leaves and small, light yellow bell-shaped flowers. Nutmegs are propagated by seeds in nursery beds and after about six months they are transplanted to the plantation. It takes five years for the trees to flower, so that the sex can be determined and the males can be thinned out, leaving the optimum situation of one male for every ten females. The pale yellow fruit is a drupe, grooved like an apricot, splitting along the groove when ripe to expel the seed. Full bearing occurs after 15 years and the trees continue to bear fruit for about fifty years. A single mature tree produces up to 1,500 to 2,000 nutmegs per year. When the fruit is harvested the seed is removed, then the mace from the seed.

The nutmeg seed is encased in a mottled yellow, edible fruit, the approximate size and shape of a small peach. The fruit splits in half to reveal a net-like, bright red covering over the seed. This is the aril which is collected, dried and sold as mace. Under the aril is a dark shiny nut-like pit, and inside that is the oval shaped seed which is the nutmeg. It is oval, about 2-3 cm in length and 1,5-2 cm in width, lightly wrinkled and dark brown on the outside, and lighter brown on the inside. Whole nutmeg may be coated with lime to protect against insects and fungus, though this practice is giving way to other forms of fumigation.

Nutmeg contains essential oil, solid fatty oil, protein and starch. The essential oil is composed of terpenes, elemicin and myristicin and has pronounced sedative properties, so in low doses nutmeg acts as a sedative, while in high doses can cause hallucinations, vomiting, epileptic symptoms and even death (mostly owing to myristicin, a poisonous narcotic).

Whole nuts are preferable to ground nutmeg, as flavor deteriorates quickly. Whole nuts will keep indefinitely and can be grated as required with a nutmeg grater. As it was mentioned above, nutmeg is poisonous and should be used in moderation, a pinch or two is safe. Store both ground and whole nutmeg away from sunlight in airtight containers.

Nutmeg essential oil is obtained by the steam distillation of ground nutmeg and is used heavily in the perfumery and pharmaceutical industries. The oil is colorless or light yellow, and smells and tastes of nutmeg. It contains numerous components of interest to the oleochemical industry, and is used as natural food flavoring in baked goods, syrups, beverages, and sweets. The essential oil is also used in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, for instance, in toothpaste, and as a major ingredient in some cough syrups. In traditional medicine nutmeg and nutmeg oil were used for illnesses related to the nervous and digestive systems.

Nutmeg is usually associated with sweet, spicy dishes - pies, puddings, custards, cookies and spice cakes. It combines well with many cheeses, and is included in souffles and cheese sauces. In soups it works with tomatoes, slit pea, chicken or black beans. It complements egg dishes and vegetables like cabbage, spinach, broccoli, beans onions and eggplant. In Indian cuisine, nutmeg powder is used almost exclusively in sweet dishes. In Middle Eastern cuisine, nutmeg powder is often used as a spice for savory dishes. It is indispensable to eggnog and numerous mulled wines and punches.

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