To hold a nutmeg in your hand — a tiny brown globe veined with mysterious patterns — is to be reminded how much our ideas of what is precious can change. This spice (which is actually a seed, not a nut) was once so prestigious that one of the monikers of an 18th-century Persian ruler was supposedly “the nutmeg of delight”.

During the 17th century, nutmegs were such a valued element in English cooking that, as Elizabeth David wrote in 1970’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, silversmiths devised portable “marvels of pocket graters” so that “no fastidious traveller need ever have been without a nutmeg to grate upon his food, his punch, his mulled wine”. Those days are long gone. These ridged brown kernels have become a Cinderella spice, whose loveliness too often goes unrecognised.

Last Christmas Eve, I discovered that I had no nutmegs in the house and, with bread sauce on my mind, went on a panicked dash to look for one. The joy of bread sauce is not the bread or the milk but the aromatics that flavour it: the bay leaf, the onion studded with cloves, the peppercorns and — crucially! — the final perfumed grating of nutmeg. (Oh, and a blade or two of mace, which is actually the lacy cage or “aril” that surrounds a nutmeg as it grows.)

I tried three small supermarkets but none of them had any nutmeg, not even the pre-ground kind which is always disappointing compared with the whole spice. Eventually, I found a bag of nutmegs in a Turkish grocer and my bread sauce panic abated. But I was left wondering how it was that nutmeg had got pushed out of the ­mainstream of western cooking.

Particularly in comparison with cinnamon and ginger, those other warm, sweet spices, nutmeg is very often overlooked. A search for recipes on the BBC Food website yields 1,473 results for ginger and 928 for cinnamon, but only 442 for nutmeg and a mere 82 for mace. Kitty Coles is a food stylist who works with cookery writers including Anna Jones, Gennaro Contaldo and Thomasina Miers. Coles tells me that “as someone who feels like they cook with a lot of spices, I never really use nutmeg and I don’t know why”. 

When I think of my mother’s cooking during the 1980s, so much of it started with getting out a nutmeg and a little nutmeg grater. As a child, I found them to be enchanted objects. They looked and felt so hard and round and perfect, as if someone had carved them from wood. I sometimes took a few in my hand and rattled them, like dice.

My mother grated nutmeg into cheese sauce to go with macaroni and onion sauce to go with roast lamb. She added it to cakes and steamed puddings. It was the final flourish in a bowl of buttered spinach and she put a thick brown layer of it over a baked custard before it went into the oven.

A ­wartime child, my mother husbanded her nutmegs carefully and grated them down to the final crumb, just as she kept a bar of soap on the go down to the last sliver.

This nutmeg-rich style of English cooking now feels a world away. Nutmeg also tends to be underused, especially in sweet baking. Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra is a food writer based in the Netherlands who grew up eating nutmeg-scented cakes in Guyana. She laments the way that nutmeg has lost favour among home bakers in comparison with other flavourings such as vanilla. She tells me that nutmeg may find itself in a catch-22 in the modern kitchen because the ready-ground kind is often flavourless, yet “many see the ­grating as a burden. I can’t imagine why, though.”

Pagrach-­Chandra rightly observes that many people now don’t identify nutmeg as a chief ­flavouring. Everyone knows cinnamon rolls and vanilla ice cream but nutmeg cake is far less appreciated, even though it can be utterly ­delicious. A case in point is the nutmeg loaf cake soaked in rum syrup in her 2009 book Warm Bread and Honey Cake, which is one of the greatest nutmeg recipes ever.

Even if our excitement about nutmeg has dulled, the thing itself is as exciting as ever: a deeply ­fragrant seasoning that for centuries drove people wild. The Latin name for the evergreen tree on which it grows is Myristica fragrans and its ­fragrance really is like no other: part warm and sweet, part edgy and bitter. Pagrach-Chandra writes that she went on a trip to Grenada as a child and remembers that the air near the nutmeg groves smelled so delicious “it felt like you could open your mouth and eat it”. 

Nutmeg’s desirability in Renaissance times was partly related to how hard it was to get. The nutmeg fruit — which, when fresh, is apparently juicy and golden, like a plum — only grew in one place, thousands of miles from Europe. The tree is native to a group of just 11 small volcanic islands, the Banda Islands, in the Indonesian province of Maluku (for centuries known as the Spice Islands) and until the 19th century didn’t grow anywhere else.

By medieval times, nutmegs had travelled as far as Persia and Constantinople. But they did not become a widespread part of European cuisine until the 16th century, when the Portuguese reached the Banda Islands and established a trade route around the Cape of Good Hope.

In order to reach European consumers, nutmegs went on a tremendously long and complex journey: first on boats to India or China, then on Arab dhows to the spice ports of the Middle East, ­followed by caravans across the desert, then ships to the ­Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Italy, and from there to London. As the last link in this long chain, British nutmeg eaters paid the highest prices for the spice.

For a long time, these high prices made nutmeg a terrible object of desire — terrible because the Dutch East India Company’s ambition to seize a monopoly of the spice of the Banda Islands from the Portuguese led to the massacre of thousands of Bandanese from 1609 to 1621. In brute economic terms, nutmeg was worth more to Dutch traders than the lives of the islanders who harvested the precious “nuts”. The Dutch killed or expelled more than 10,000 native people, leaving just a thousand Bandanese survivors on the islands.

Another reason why nutmeg was valued so highly was because it was believed to have a whole range of medicinal properties, including as a hallucinogenic drug. (Eating a very large amount is said to produce a high but the downside is that it is also poisonous, leading to dizziness, confusion and ­seizures.)

In 1597, the herbalist John Gerard observed that nutmeg “is good against freckles in the face, quickneth the sight, strengthens the belly and feeble liver, taketh away the swelling of the spleen”. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that he took a spoonful of honey and some scraped nutmeg to help a cold and found it did him “much good”.

Above all else, however, nutmegs were prized for their musky flavour. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, which is the most influential English cookery book of the 18th century, contains no fewer than 318 references to nutmeg. And Glasse did not stint on the quantity that she used. She regularly asks the reader to grate in half a nutmeg, for example in a dish of stewed cucumbers or a beef daube. Her cheesecake recipe calls for a whole nutmeg, grated. Glasse was not unusual in her addiction to nutmeggy dishes. Many old English recipes for spice cake call for two or three nutmegs in a single cake, which really is overkill.

One of the reasons nutmeg has fallen out of favour may be that its charm is much more dose-dependent than spices such as cinnamon. A little nutmeg is lovely; a lot is unpleasantly ­similar to cough medicine (which often uses nutmeg oil as an ingredient).

Tamasin Day-Lewis writes in her 2001 cookbook Simply the Best that the correct amount of nutmeg to use in a lasagne is a “suspicion”. Kitty Coles tells me that while she loves a light dusting of it on French toast (a brilliant idea) or on top of a rice pudding, “it’s so distinct in ­flavour and smell that it’s one of those ingredients that can overpower everything else”. 

Nutmeg can also react weirdly with certain ingredients. In The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit writes about the curious fact that when pears are baked with nutmeg, the results can taste, bizarrely, like parsnips because both nutmeg and parsnip contain a compound called myristicin. Yet Segnit does not observe the same effect when she pairs nutmeg with apple purée and vanilla ice cream, a combination she describes as so joyous it is “like falling in love in the autumn”. 

The strange thing about nutmeg’s waning popularity as an ingredient is that there has actually been no drop in consumption. In Indonesia, still the top nutmeg exporter in the world by a long way, the area of land under cultivation for nutmeg nearly doubled from 2010 to 2019, from 118,000 to 203,000 hectares. Meanwhile, the volume of nutmeg exported from Indonesia to the EU increased sharply from 2016 to 2020.

Some of this rise in demand is due to the spice’s use as a health supplement and in the beauty industry (it is often added to men’s fragrances to give a subtle spiciness, a throwback to the old idea of nutmeg as an aphrodisiac). But it also reflects the fact that nutmeg is an unobtrusive bit player in countless commonly consumed foods and drinks where we might not be aware it is there. It is an open secret that nutmeg oil is one of the key ingredients in both Coke and Pepsi.

At the same time, ground nutmeg — and ground mace too — finds its way into numerous packaged foods from processed meats such as sausages to soups, sauces and baked goods.

The true story of nutmeg in the modern world is not that it is unloved but that we often don’t ­­recognise our own desire for it. Nutmeg graters may no longer be standard kitchen kit yet some of the world’s most popular spice mixes actually depend on nutmeg for their character. As Eleanor Ford writes in The Nutmeg Trail, “What unites Indian garam masala, Lebanese seven spice, French quatre épices, Moroccan ras el hanout and Middle Eastern baharat? It is nutmeg, which lends its ­bittersweet, fragrant warmth to them all.”

Nutmeg is also present in Ethiopian berbere mix and Chinese five spice, which helps to explain why China was the lead importer of nutmeg in 2020. Ford argues that nutmeg’s true power is its remarkable ability to “pick up nuances in other spices”. She told me that sometimes Indonesian cooks crack a whole nut in half with an ulek (a hard pestle-like implement) and throw it into a stew to infuse the pot, much as European cooks might use a bay leaf.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a nutmeg fan, I urge you to buy a jar and see how just a little of the freshly grated spice can lift almost any savoury meal by playing off the other flavours on the plate. Italian cooks have long been wise to this, using nutmeg’s warmth to season meat ragus and its bitterness to undercut the sweetness of pumpkin in ravioli.

I love adding it to any kind of creamy ­cauliflower dish (my current favourite is a cauliflower cheese soufflé with nutmeg and Dijon mustard). My brother-in-law, who is from Argentina, has taught me that nutmeg is the missing element in mashed potatoes. You needn’t — mustn’t! — add much, but just a hint of nutmeg gives the potatoes a hard-to-define perfume of home. Nutmeg may no longer be precious in simple monetary terms, but these little brown kernels are still a form of riches.

Bee Wilson is author of “The Way We Eat Now” (Fourth Estate/Basic Books)

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