by Margaret Mendel
Recipe at the end of this post.
Today cinnamon is considered a common spice. But in antiquity it was a valued commodity deemed to be as precious as gold. Cinnamon was so important that the demand for it drove world exploration and countries went to war over this aromatic seasoning.
HISTORY OF CINNAMON
Arabian traders first discovered cinnamon on an island off the coast of India in 1500 BC. That island is now known as Sri Lanka. The location of this valuable spice was a highly guarded secret for 3,000 years. The Arabian traders made cinnamon even more highly valued by inventing horrible and mysterious stories about how the spice was gathered.
Undoubtedly, this was an attempt to dissuade others from seeking this precious commodity. Tales were told of giant birds, huge bat-winged creatures that built nests of cinnamon sticks. The traders spoke of how they left huge carcasses of a buffalo for the birds’ taking. The frightful beasts would swoop down; lift the offering, bringing the meat to their nests where the weight of the great chunks of meat would break the nests. The cinnamon stick-nests would then fall to the earth and the traders would quickly scurry in and carry away the fallen precious pieces of cinnamon before these flying creatures ate them. Some Arabian traders told stories of cinnamon growing in swamps infested with man-eating snakes. The waters teeming with blood sucking leeches as large as a human’s arm. And then if that wasn’t enough, in the gnarled branches of trees cloaked in webs as thick as smoke sat spiders so fierce they ensnared and carried off entire villages.
With stories like this, it took a fearless soul to venture into the unknown to seek even something as valuable as cinnamon.
HOW CINNAMON HAS BEEN USED THROUGHOUT TIME
The Bible tells of Moses anointing his followers with cinnamon scented oil. Egyptians used large quantities of this spice when embalming mummies. Bundles of cinnamon were heaped onto funeral pyres, partly as a ritual but also to ward off odor. Pliny The Elder, a Roman scholar and witness to the eruption of Vesuvius, thought cinnamon came from Ethiopia and was carried on rafts with no oars or sails, powered by “man alone and his courage”. Roman emperor Nero in AD 65, after killing his wife, Poppaea Sabina, felt so guilt ridden that he burned a years supply of cinnamon to atone for his role in her death.
During Shakespeare’s time, cinnamon was valued as a preservative for meat. It was thought that phenols, one of the properties of cinnamon, inhibit the growth of bacteria responsible for spoilage. There was an added value in having cinnamon cured meat, because the strong aroma of this spice also masked the stench of aged meat.
COLONIALIZATION AND CINNAMON
In 1500, a Portuguese trading vessel stumbled onto Sri Lanka, discovering the origin of cinnamon they then became the major purveyor of this spice. The Dutch overpowered the Portuguese in 1600, taking control of their colonies and the spice trade. A hundred years later the British and Dutch went to war over ownership of that part of the world. The British won. But cinnamon was no longer an expensive and rare commodity because by then this precious spice had been cultivated in other parts of the world.
TWO TYPES OF CINNAMON
Today we use two types of cinnamon: Ceylon and Cassia. Ceylon, considered the true cinnamon and the more expensive variety, is still produced in Sri Lanka. It has a mild and sweet taste. Cassia, a lesser variety of cinnamon, primarily grown in Indonesia and Mexico is harsher, hotter with a slight bitter flavor compared to the Ceylon variety. A wise cook is advised to read her/his spice labels carefully to know which cinnamon is being added to their food.
Both types of cinnamon come from the bark of trees in the Laurel family. The bark is removed during the rainy season and left to dry and ferment for 24 hours. When the outer layer of the bark is scraped off, the inner bark naturally coils into quills or what we commonly call, sticks. The Ceylon, the true cinnamon, curls in a telescopic form while the Cassia variety curls in from both sides, like a scroll.
COOKING WITH CINNAMON
Cooking is the art of seasoning. Even an ordinary slice of toast can be dressed up and turned into a delightful tidbit. A slight pat of butter spread across hot toasted bread, a sprinkle of sugar, a dusting of cinnamon and it’s quite possible that a ho-hum day can temporarily be forgotten.
The flavor of a chicken soup, beef stew or vegetable ragu can be enhanced by the addition of a small stick of cinnamon. The idea is to enliven the broth with an-ever-so slight warmth and a nearly undetectable aromatic flavor.
SIMPLE CINNAMON COFFEE CAKE
1 c. brown sugar, firmly packed
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ cup butter or margarine
2 c. sifted flour
2 tsp. Baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
2 Tbl. butter or margarine
1 ½ c. sugar
1 tsp. Vanilla
1 c. milk
¼ c. finely chopped nuts
Combine brown sugar and cinnamon; cut in butter until crumbly and well mixed. Set aside.
Stir together flour, baking powder and salt.
Cream the 2 Tbl. butter or margarine in a mixing bowl. Gradually beat in sugar. Add egg and vanilla; beat well. Stir in flour mixture by hand alternating with milk, starting and ending with flour mixture.
Pour into a greased 8-inch square pan. Sprinkle finely chopped nuts and then the brown sugar mixture.
Bake in 425 oven 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 8 servings.
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