Today we’re kicking off a new column dedicated to the spices and herbs most used in Italian cuisine. As key elements of any great recipe, herbs and spices – which are the product of seeds, fruits, roots, barks, berries, buds or vegetable substances – are primarily used for flavoring and coloring dishes or for preserving certain foods. In Italian cuisine, the use of herbs and spices is just as vital as any other ingredient. Our first article in this series is on the versatile and mysteriously exotic nutmeg.
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is not a native spice of Italy but it is widely used in Italian cookery. Noce moscata, as we call it here, belongs to an evergreen tree native to the Moluccas in Indonesia. Widely grown in China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Grenada* in the Caribbean, Kerala in India, Sri Lanka and South America, the nutmeg plant bears a yellow-green fruit, similar to an unripe apricot or a plump loquat. When ripe, the fruit splits open in two valves, revealing a deep red mace, which is the fleshy, veined-looking coat that holds the dark shell of the pit. The hazelnut-like oval or roundish pit at the heart of the mace, once hulled, gives us the actual spice. Nutmeg owes its taste and aroma – particularly if grated to a fine powder – to the presence of an essential oil contained in the texture of the pit.
Pleasantly aromatic, enveloping and exotic, nutmeg is widely used in cooking. In Italy it is a key ingredient for béchamel (white roux), it is added to buttered mashed potatoes and the filling of tortellini, ravioli and cannelloni; and is used to perk up the blandness of certain boiled vegetables. Some sweet puddings and flans also include nutmeg in their ingredient list, and along with cloves, star anise and cinnamon, nutmeg is a traditional ingredient in vin brulé, Italy’s answer to mulled wine.
Nutmeg’s digestive and tonic properties have been known for millennia. Thanks to its antiseptic properties nutmeg was historically a remedy used to treat hundreds of illnesses. In Elizabethan times, for example, because nutmeg was believed to ward off the plague, demand highly increased and its price skyrocketed. In minimal quantities, nutmeg is said to stimulate appetite, help digestion, reduce nausea and vomiting, and relieve diarrhea. Externally, the application of nutmeg essential oil or butter is sometimes used against rheumatic and neuralgic pains. In the 19th century, it was used to induce miscarriages, which led to numerous recorded cases of nutmeg poisoning.
The presence of myristicin and elemicin in large quantities of nutmeg can induce a range of toxic episodes. Effects in studied nutmeg intoxications varied from person to person, but were often reportedly associated with an excited and confused state, headaches, nausea, dizziness, dry mouth, bloodshot eyes, and memory fluctuations. Excessive use of nutmeg has also been reported to induce convulsions, hallucinogenic effects, such as visual distortions and paranoid ideation, and psychoactive effects similar to those caused by amphetamines.
It is therefore recommended to minimize use of nutmeg to no more than 5-10 grams per day.
Nutmeg should be stored in a cool, dry part of the pantry, and away from light. Once grated, the fresh pit will retain its full aromatic and flavoring power for about a month. Old pits should therefore be discarded after that time.
The national flag of Grenada bears a stylised split-open nutmeg fruit.