On the small island of Grenada, the southernmost Windward Island in the Caribbean chain, the taxi driver who picks you up at the airport is likely to stop en route to town, offering to gather a few fallen nutmegs from the 90 -foot-high majestic trees that line the winding road.
The appearance of fresh nutmegs comes as something of a surprise: the pear-colored, small, round fruit splits open when ripe to reveal a thin, crimson veil of mace, beneath which is the nutmeg itself.
The trees are not indigenous to Grenada, but since their arrival from Indonesia in 1843, nutmeg and mace have become intricately woven into the daily lives and foods of Grenadians, who gather, sort, and grade 40 percent of the world's supply of these two spices.
For tourists in search of mementos, the women of Grenada weave small spice baskets and fill them with nutmegs, mace, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla pods, all grown on this island where the breeze often smells like there's a spice cake in the oven.
The road from Pearl's airport to St. George's, the Grenada capital, climbs up and down mountain roads. Your driver will point out papayas, mangoes, coconuts, and you might pass a young boy holding up five or six land crabs tied together with a string.
The island's fruits are used in myriad ways. Best of all, perhaps, are the perfectly ripened mangoes and papayas, sliced, and served at breakfast with a spray of lime juice or made into pies, mousses, and chutneys.
Both the fruit and this popular accompaniment to curries were introduced to Grenada by the East Indians who came to the islands in 1857 to work the sugar plantations after African slave trade was abolished.
Coconuts are used for the milk in cooking and for the coconut water, sold by street vendors for people to drink straight from the nut after it is slashed open with a long machete.
Two of the most exotic fruits found on Grenada are the soursop and the ugli fruit. Soursop, shaped like an elongated pear, has prickly green skin and fibrous white flesh. Its mild flavor has a tart edge, perfect for refreshing drinks, ices, and ice creams.
The ugli looks like a lumpy grapefruit and tastes somewhat like it but is sweeter and is most commonly halved and eaten raw.
While the fruits tend toward brilliant colors and exotic tastes, the vegetables are mostly starchy roots and tubers - what the Grenadians refer to as ''ground provisions.''
Underground or root vegetables such as annia and dasheen, soon become delicious soups, fritters, or stews in a Grenadian kitchen.
The secret, of course, is often in the seasoning: they don't call Grenada the spice island for nothing.
The huge elephant-ear-shaped leaves of the tuber, dasheen, known often as taro but not botanically identical, are the callaloo, one of the island's favorite greens.
Callaloo soup, flecked with slivers of land crab meat and flavored with coconut milk, is a memorable Grenadian specialty served in many of the island's restaurants.
The sweet variety of cassava or manioc root is grated and the juice is boiled down and flavored with brown sugar, cinnamon, and cloves for a flavorful sauce, known as casareep.
This is the essential ingredient in West Indian pepperpot, a spicy stew thought to have its origins among the original Indian inhabitants of Guyana, who brought it to the islands when they were forced north by invading tribes.
A fine place to taste pepperpot is at the elegant plantation home of Betty Mascall, where lunch is served daily to visitors by appointment.
Seafood on Grenada provides some interesting surprises for the adventurous eater. An island favorite is lambi, the meat of a conch about one foot long, which has a heavy spiral shell. The flesh is usually pounded and sliced, then broiled or stewed as a curry, or eaten chilled in a seafood salad. A good place to try lambi is the Nutmeg Restaurant overlooking Grenada's colorful harbor in St. George's.
This Grenadian specialty is the perfect accompaniment to roast turkey or pork and most suitable for holiday entertainment. Sweet Potato Souffle 2 cups sweet potato, cooked and mashed 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 1 tablespoon brown sugar, or more, to taste Pinch salt 2 eggs, separated 1 cup milk Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 1 1/2-quart souffle or baking dish. In a bowl, combine sweet potato, spices, sugar, salt, egg yolks, and milk. In separate bowl, beat egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into sweet potato mixture. Pour into souffle dish and bake until golden, about 35 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.
This moist cake has a slightly crunchy bottom, and the cashew-nutmeg flavor combination is unusually pleasant. Nutmeg Cake 1 1/2 cups brown sugar 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut into bits 1 large egg, beaten 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk 1 teaspoon baking soda 3/4 cup coarsely chopped cashews
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan. In a large bowl, blend sugar and flour. Add butter and rub into dry ingredients with fingers until small crumbs form. Place half the crumbs into baking pan.
To remaining crumbs, add egg, nutmeg and sour milk which has been mixed with baking soda. Pour mixture onto crumbs in baking pan and sprinkle top with chopped nuts.
Bake about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out dry.