When Columbus sailed off and found a continent we all know and love, one of the spices he was looking for was nutmeg. Native to the Spice Islands, the seed of the nutmeg tree (a tropical evergreen) was very popular throughout the world from the 15th to the 19th century. In Colonial times in America, if you were invited to a fancy meal, even if it were being hosted by President George the First, you were expected to bring your own nutmeg, which you would grind onto the meat dish. You brought your own because it was too expensive for your host to provide. You used it on the meat of the feast in an effort to cover up the bad flavor of the usually partially rotted meat. Remember, no refrigeration back then.
Nutmeg can be used on savory things, as in the example of the meat above. It is still good used on meat, though these days the meat is usually not as rotten. But, we also love nutmeg in sweet dishes. In the Southern tradition a fruit pie just isn’t quite ready to be cooked if there isn’t some nutmeg in it. During the Holiday Season, I won’t drink my Egg Nog if there isn’t a good brisk brushing of nutmeg on top.
Nutmeg is best freshly grated. The flavor is delicately warm, spicy, and sweet.
If you don’t have nutmeg, try using mace, but be gentle as mace is much stronger.