Smell of the week: Nutmeg

In a continuing short series on mince pies, today’s spice is nutmeg. Nutmeg and its aromatically ‘lighter’ sister mace both come from trees in the genus Myristica. On the left is nutmeg in fresh form: the seed is nutmeg and the aril is mace. Myristica fragrans, the most common source, is an Indonesian flowering evergreens that is sometimes classified with magnolias. These trees take several years to mature (7-9) but have a long period of productivity–up to 90 years.

Nutmeg has a storied economic history. Romans travelled to the spice islands to trade for nutmeg and other spices. Arabs took over this spice trade in the 6th century and, at one point, nutmeg was used for warding off the plague. Nutmeg even has an illicit history as a cheap high during a drug drought–it was Nostredamous’ drug of choice!

Nutmeg is used ground in baking (though fresh grated is best), as an essential oil, and as nut butter. The oil is the most commonly used variety in the taste and fragrance industries (including Coca Cola). Its major compounds are: 50% sabinene OR camphene (and derivatives), 20% d-Penine, and the remaining 30% a mix of chemicals including terpenes, esters,  myristin (the purported hallcinogenic agent) and eugenol. Sabinene confers the spicy quality to nutmeg and camphene has tremendous industrial value (for itself and as a precursor to other chemicals). D-pinene can be used to manufacture camphor (a previous Smell of the Week). Eugenol, though found in smaller quantities in nutmeg, is one of the major volatile components of the seed and is used for making vanillin and also as a substitute for cloves (next week’s smell!) in perfume-making.

Ground nutmeg loses flavour rapidly. So, when cooking or baking with nutmeg (as with cinnamon) always grate from the seed, which can be kept indefinitely.


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

3 thoughts on “Smell of the week: Nutmeg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: