One of the most useful of spices for both sweet and savoury cooking, with a myriad of sweet-sharp, scented and evocative flavours that might remind you of black pepper, of citrus, and of almost anything else tropical, exotic and romantic.
In the 18th century, men and women of fashion – and others who were not – carried whole nutmegs in small silver graters that would fit into their pockets, so they had the benefit of this spice whenever they wanted and at its freshly grated peak.
The nutmeg is the seed of Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree indigenous to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (or Spice Islands) of Indonesia and was one of the principal targets in the great race to find a Western route to the Spice Islands – and thus led to the European discovery of the West Indies and the American continent. The tree is unique for producing two spices, because the lace-like filament that encloses the nutmeg gives us mace, a lighter, some would say more elegant, spice that is far less used.
Now very widely grown, particularly in the Caribbean, where nutmeg has been discovered to have a great affinity with rum and thus in cocktails as well as in cooking. It's great with chocolate, too.
Few shops that sell spices will be without ground nutmeg but not many sell whole nutmegs; try larger supermarkets.
Choose the best
Judge ground nutmeg by the sell-by date. Whole nutmegs have very little scent and what there is must be clean with no hint of mustiness. Discard any that have obvious intrusions by burrowing insects; they might still be there, dead or alive.
Once opened ground nutmeg deteriorates quickly, losing it sharpness and freshness and becoming increasingly soapy. Even if kept cool, dark and dry it’s at its best only for a week at most.
Whole nutmegs last for many, many months, years perhaps. The grated surface will oxidise and lose freshness, so always scape this away before adding freshly grated nutmeg to anything.
Nutmeg’s full flavour spectrum is best experienced when grated freshly onto something hot rather than being cooked. It has a special affinity with starchy and creamy foods and thus is the perfect way to finish butter-rich mashed potatoes, rice puddings, custards and custard tarts, bread and butter puddings and the like, and is also wonderful on such green vegetables as French beans, as long as there is also butter present.
Butter, brown sugar and nutmeg transform sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkin or squash.
When used to spice up baking, from gingerbread to muffins or chocolate and fruit cakes, nutmeg retains much of its appeal. Nutmeg is the perfect way to finish a cheesecake, baked or unbaked, and works particularly well if there is orange present, as grated zest or orange-flower water. Nutmeg is a vital member of any mixed spice but especially good combined with cinnamon, the two of them creating an almost perfect welcoming, warming aroma. It also has a special affinity with cardamom; both are great on hot coffee and in or on coffee cake.
If your grater is awkward to use, scrape a whole nutmeg with a sharp knife blade, directly over the food.