The fruit of a tall, tropical tree, Myristica fragrens, is the source of not just one, but two aromatic spices – nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is actually the seed from the fruit of the tree, which can grow to a height of 50 feet and live up to 75 years. Although the tree bears some fruit year round, the main harvests are in March/April and October/November.
Annual world production of nutmeg is approximately 13 million pounds. Indonesia grows about two-thirds of the world’s nutmeg, while Grenada is the other major producer. Unfortunately, extensive tree damage from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 dramatically reduced the amount of nutmegs Grenada has been able to cultivate in recent years.
Nutmegs grow best in elevations of 1,500 to 2,500 feet, and thrive in nutrient-rich, volcanic soil. At or close to the harvesting season, its tree branches become laden with yellow fruit, similar in size to nectarines. The outer portion of the fruit – the largest part – is fleshy, has the consistency of an unripe nectarine, and actually tastes like nutmeg. This part of the fruit is used to manufacture Morne Délice nutmeg jam, jelly and syrup.
When the fruit fully ripens on the tree, it splits open naturally, then falls to the ground where it is collected by the farmers. Breaking open the fruit reveals a lacy, scarlet red membrane that envelops a dark brown, brittle shell. The membrane is called the aril, which turns a dull red-orange when sun-dried by the harvesters. The dried aril is mace, which has a similar taste and aroma to nutmeg, but is slightly more delicate. After the mace is removed, what remains is the hard outer shell covering the nutmeg.
The nutmeg is extremely aromatic and has one of the highest amounts of volatile oil of all spices. After being dried to develop its distinctive flavor, the outer shell is removed. Nutmegs are then sorted by size and visual appearance. The largest and most intact nutmegs are sold whole, and can be found in your local grocery store ready to be freshly grated.