The spice series: nutmeg, mace and allspice

Categories: Expert guidance

In this series, food writer and regular Borough blogger Ed Smith takes an in-depth look at the many spices available at the Market. This month: nutmeg, mace and allspice

Following on from last month’s piece on cinnamon, cassia bark and clove, December’s Spice series covers the remaining ‘festive’ spices of nutmeg, mace and allspice. These provide so many of the flavours and aromas that bring Christmas to our minds and mouths (think of mulled wine, egg nog and figgy pudding). But while it’s timely to talk of them now, in fact they’re vital to the spice cupboard through every month of the year.

So, what more should we know?

Nutmeg, that brown, woody and unpromising looking seed is grown on, surprise surprise, nutmeg trees.

It’s not quite that simple, though, as like juniper, pistachio, kiwi and many other tree species, nutmeg are ‘dioecious’, with only the female bearing fruit (a male tree needs to be in close proximity for pollination). Originally nutmegs were mostly harvested on the Indonesian Bandas Islands, though now they are commercially grown in a variety of locations, such as Colombia, Brazil, Sumatra and Madagascar, all united by their location in the tropics.

The tree’s fruit is relatively large, with a fleshy jacket surrounding a shiny brown seed reminiscent of a conker. Around that seed is a bright red webbing known as the aril. When dried and mellowed a touch in colour, the aril can be removed and is then known as mace, while the seed dulls in colour and is what we recognise to be nutmeg.

As with so many spices, nutmeg has been a much-traded commodity for hundreds of years. It’s been mentioned in English literature since as early as the 13th century, and in the 17th century was considered one of the world’s most valuable goods by weight.

Why? Well, it seems to have been desired for a number of reasons. Over the course of history, nutmeg has been tucked into chests and wardrobes as a deodorant for clothes, it’s been harnessed for its antimicrobial properties, used as a sexual stimulant, as a flavouring for ale, a substitute for cannabis, as a poison (eating three or more in one sitting could prove deadly) and to induce abortions. I quite like it grated over swede.

Indeed, as far as I’m concerned, using nutmeg sparingly for culinary purposes is the best option for it. Buy the seed whole, to be grated on a robust but cheap nutmeg grater or a fancier, fine microplane.

The dry seed keeps very well for a long time; you simply need to discard your first grate of the skin or most recently grated edge to reveal a warming, sweet, slightly musky scent and flavour. As discussed below, its qualities can be utilised in both sweet and savoury dishes.

The bright red aril of the nutmeg seed turns an orangey, mustardy yellow as it dries. It’s then removed from the seed and becomes known as mace ‘blade’.

Unsurprisingly, mace has similarities in scent and flavour to nutmeg. At first sniff it can seem milder and sweeter than the nut. When cooked, though, it can be really quite pungent. Many people seem to dislike it; bad experiences surely occurring when there’s been a heavy hand, or the blade has been left to stew for a long time, which causes it to turn bitter.

There’s a definite sweet perfume, though. So, it should be no surprise to find that although ‘mace’ has been used to name an aggressive spray, its oils are used in numerous popular scented soaps and fragrances.

You can buy ground mace for use in cooking; I’d recommend doing that if the use is for spicing a savoury meal (meatballs, haggis). But I also enjoy using mace blades whole, and adding them to the cooking liquid for 20-30 minutes, or infusing into milks and creams for sauces to go with fish or poultry. It’s probably best if you try to use up your supplies within 12 months.

Allspice. Not four spice, five spice, mixed spice or any other blend of spice. Just a single dried, unripe berry named ‘allspice’, due to a flavour which is reminiscent of a mix of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.

This spice originates in the Caribbean seas around Latin America (Mexico) and the West Indies—Jamaica, in particular, where the spice has forever been used as a flavouring on its own for preserved meat, but also within jerk marinade alongside thyme, scotch bonnet and ginger. The branches of allspice trees are also traditionally burnt to provide the smoke for jerk meats.

We’ll get on to more culinary uses in a second, but it is no surprise that, as well as in jerk marinade, allspice berries have been utilised in pretty much any situation you can imagine cloves, cinnamon or nutmeg, whether the outcome is to be sweet, savoury or a mix of the two. On occasion, the situation will require ground or pestle-pounded berries (it’s a pretty quick process), but often they’re simply tapped to break them open, or left entirely whole.

Culinary uses
A grating of nutmeg goes a long way. It’s used to great effect to flavour both custards (and subsequently tarts and ice creams) and béchamel sauces—who wouldn’t want the warming scent within the custard poured over an apple pie, or as a distant undertone in cauliflower cheese or macaroni cheese? Italians and Italophiles love it in pasta dishes (Nigella adds a dusting, very successfully, to her carbonara) and their cured meats and sausages, such as mortadella. And, elsewhere, you might notice it adding depth (or is it height?) to Indian dishes such as biryanis and bhunas. Whisper it, but John O’Connell contends in his Book of Spice, that nutmeg is one of the secret components of Coca Cola.

Mace hangs out in similar circles—it’s often used in custards, custard-based desserts, offal and ground meat dishes. The two spices pair well with pork and lamb, and also vegetables like sweet potatoes, pumpkins, potatoes, swede and celeriac.

As mentioned, allspice is crucial in a jerk marinade or rub, and its three magical flavours for the price of one will sit in many sweetly spiced recipes. Perhaps its most prevalent role in western cooking, though, is as a pickling and curing aromatic. You’ll find allspice in recipes for pickled and soused herrings, salt beef, hams, corned beef, beef brisket and pastrami. I know a number of British charcutiers for whom it is an indispensable part of their seasoning.

And, of course, to square the circle, allspice, like nutmeg and mace, is often found in mincemeat and Christmas pudding.

Recipes to look out for
These spices don’t tend to get referenced in cookbook indexes, as they’re so often considered a minor seasoning. However, after browsing through multiple tomes, the following recipes stood out as ones that make the most of them:

—Heston Blumenthal’s ‘perfect’ soused herrings in Heston at Home, require allspice berries. Obviously.

—St John’s eccles cakes demand both nutmeg and allspice, and their speculaas biscuits require nutmeg and mace, in Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating and Beyond Nose to Tail respectively.

—If you need to use up your allspice, the jerk marinade in Shivi Ramoutar’s Caribbean Modern requires 8 teaspoons’ worth. “Its star, the mighty allspice, really shines”.

—If you’ve not got those books, then my recipe that goes alongside this post might help: an allspice, nutmeg and mace spiced ‘pigsty’ pie.

Market spice heroes
Look out for De La Grenade’s nutmeg jams and jellies. Extraordinary condiments from Grenada, which are as at home on toast, as they are as a glaze for ham, or sauce to accompany turkey.

For more on this spice series, including the meaning of ‘spice’ and tips on sourcing, grinding and storing, read Ed’s introductory post.