Nutmeg and mace: The sweet and savoury spices

Journal Article
Author(s): Dr. Charles Spence
Year: 2024

Nutmeg, mace (the membrane of the nutmeg seed), and cloves have long been considered as exotic spices in European cuisine. Nutmeg and mace come from the same tree, Myristica fragrans Houtt. (Myristicaceae), and share a large number of aromatic volatiles. The aroma/flavour of these spices is described as fruity, citrus, floral, herbal, roasted (mace) / green notes (nutmeg), woody, and spicy. Nowadays, nutmeg is found in many popular spice mixes, such as quatre épices, garam masala, pumpkin spice mix, and mixed spice. However, the vast majority of nutmeg (c. 90%) is added directly to processed foods, such as sausages and terrines, where it likely serves an antimicrobial function. At the same time, however, nutmeg also appears to complement milk-, cream-, and egg-based dishes particularly well (as in béchamel sauce). Nutmeg and mace are somewhat unusual amongst spices in being associated with both sweet and savoury dishes and drinks. Although relatively late arrivals to the European table, fashionable Europeans (in the 17th and 18th centuries) would once carry their own personal nutmeg graters around with them to season their food and drink at the table. However, while nutmeg and mace are called for in a large number of the dishes in Robert May’s 17th century cookbook, pepper and chilli have nowadays become far more popular (at least by volume sold).