Nutmeg, or Myristica fragrans, comes from the seed of a tropical evergreen tree. It is native to the Banda Islands, located in the Maluku province of Indonesia. Though picky when it comes to climate, nutmeg grows well on the islands due to the hot, stable temperatures, insulation from climate change, volcanic soil, and coastal winds and rains. Modern techniques have allowed the cultivation of the crop in other equatorial and tropical areas, including islands in the Caribbean and parts of India.
Myristica fragrans actually results in two separate spices. The first is, of course, common nutmeg. Made from the inner heart of the fruit, the seed is dried and then ground. The second spice is mace, made from the lacy cover surrounding the seed. In addition to mace and nutmeg, cooks also use nutmeg oil as a flavorant. The oil is also used in many different medicines, including a recipe for Vick’s cough syrup.
Historically, many different countries have used nutmeg. In ancient Greece it was used as an incense. Medieval Europe first used it to flavor their beer. India has a unique nutmeg “paste” that they roll, dry, and smoke over a fire. Modern Europe and their colonial offshoots still use nutmeg in their holiday sweet breads–from the German Stollen to the Mexican 3 Kings Bread, to Norwegian Julekake (all of which pair nicely with your grandmother’s nutmeg eggnog). Nearly every country has developed a historical and cultural relationship with this enigmatic spice.