The nutmeg tree is important in that it provides two spices: nutmeg and mace. The tree is native to Indonesia, and also grown in Malaysia and the Caribbean, particularly Grenada. Nutmeg is the seed or pit of the fruit, while mace is the lacy reddish covering, or aril, surrounding the nutmeg seed. The mace aril is removed and dried, and most often ground into a reddish powder. The mace arils may be broken and sold as “mace blades”, though these are most often found only online. The nutmeg can either be left whole or dried and grated for sale. Nutmeg is best when grated fresh, easily done on any small-holed grater. In its native sites, the available fruit surrounding the nutmeg and mace is used to make jam or candy.
Nutmeg and mace have similar flavors, with nutmeg having a slightly sweeter and mace a more delicate flavor. It is most often used in baking cakes cookies or pies, though it is also wonderful in stews, sausages, soups. Holiday eggnog would not be the same without w grating of fresh nutmeg. A little can even enhance the flavors of spaghetti or lasagna recipes.
Mace is sometimes preferred in light colored dishes for the bright orange saffron-like hue. It is generally used in stuffing, yam dishes and sausages, though it works well in most dishes where nutmeg would be used. Mace is often associated with Fall dishes, but is wonderful at any time.
Spices are defined as various strongly flavored or aromatic substances of vegetable origin. They are usually obtained from tropical plants, and commonly used as condiments. Spices are generally dried roots, bark, buds, seeds or berries. Herbs are generally defined as the leafy parts of a plant used for flavoring. Saffron seems to fall in neither category, but it is grown in tropical places, and is definitely not leafy matter, so is defined as a spice. It is also used as a dye, to scent perfumes and as an aid to digestion.
Probably first cultivated in Asia Minor, saffron was used by all the ancient civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean, the Egyptians and the Romans. Later it was grown in Spain, possibly taken there by Arabs. In the 11th century it reached France, Germany and England. During this time, saffron had great commercial value. Powdered saffron is to be avoided as it is easily adulterated with paprika, turmeric, beets or pomegranate fibers, and even with the tasteless, odorless stamens of the saffron crocus itself. The highest quality saffron is recognized as the deepest in color. Too many yellow stigmas in the mix make it an inferior quality.
The flowers are picked once the petals open, late in autumn. The stigmas are removed and set to dry. Saffron is easy to use as its strong yellow dye is water soluble. Common saffron substitutes are annatto, safflower or turmeric, though the flavors are far different. My most early memory of saffron was its use in my Grandma’s soup. The entire house smelled of her soup, with its high saffron note. At the time, during my childhood, I knew nothing of saffron, or that it was what made Grandma’s soup taste so wonderful. When I discovered saffron on my own, I realized this was what gave her soup that particular flavor and color, and saffron is now a favored spice in my cupboard.
Some uses for saffron are in breads and buns, giving them a lovely golden color. Use saffron in soups where color and aroma are desired. It is a key ingredient in Spain’s paella, and also used in France’s bouillabaisse and in risottos of Italy. Saffron is excellent with fish dishes. Obviously, it can be used as a dye, with its strong yellow gold color. It is an ingredient in some liqueurs, such as chartreuse. Use your imagination and be creative with its use. The tiniest pinch is all that is needed.