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Ingredient of the Month 

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March 2004

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True Cinnamon (Ceylon cinnamon) and Cassia (Chinese cinnamon), are both derived from the bark of an evergreen tree.  The difference between them is that Cassia has a more robust flavour however  to all intents and purposes,   either can be substituted for the other. The characteristic rich, warm and sweet fragrance makes it one of the most evocative of spices and a much used ingredient in many cuisines worldwide. 


Origin and History of cinnamon


Ceylon Cinnamon belongs to the family Lauraceae (laurel family) and is widely grown in South America and the West Indies,  whilst Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia) is grown in China, Indochina, Indonesia, the Indies, and Central America . Cinnamon and Cassia can be differentiated by the way the bark forms: cinnamon bark forms tightly-rolled quills whilst cassia forms into more loosely rolled, irregular strips. Both are commonly referred to cinnamon sticks.


Ceylon Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is an ancient spice. It is mentioned Chinese writings which date back to 2800 B.C. and is also mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. Not only was it  used in cooking,  but also in various medicinal preparations and during the embalming process in Ancient Egypt. Always considered a precious commodity, by the 1st century A.D. writings referred to  350 grams of cinnamon being equal in value to over five kilograms of silver and so prized was it, that the Roman emperor Nero who murdered his wife, showed the extent of his (supposed) remorse by burning a year's supply of  Cinnamon on her funeral pyre.


In medieval Europe and North Africa,  it was already being used in many recipes, especially “one pot” dishes which contained both meat and fruit and by the late 15th Century Europeans also used it to disguise the smell and taste of old meat.  Up until this period, cinnamon was mainly obtained through trade with Egypt.  However, during the 16th and 17th  centuries the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English in turn fought for control of the Cinnamon in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in order to make fortunes, much like they did with Nutmeg and mace. Such was their intent,  that when the Dutch learned of a source of cinnamon along the coast of India, they coerced the local king to destroy it all so they could keep their monopoly on this exotic spice.


However by the early 19th  century, enough trees had been planted outside of the island that  the downfall of the cinnamon monopoly begun,  with trees thriving in countries such as Java, Sumatra, Mauritius and Guyana.


Cultivation of cinnamon and Processing


The Cinnamon tree is an evergreen which can grow up to 7m (56 ft) in its natural state although trees in cultivated plantations are more often grown as bushes, no taller than 3 m (10 ft), as the stems are continually cut back to produce new stems for bark. It thrives best in  a hot, wet tropical climate at  low altitude and is usually ready to harvest after 3 years.


The plant is harvested during the wet season because  the rains facilitate the peeling of the bark. Harvesting involves the removal of the stems then after 24 hours drying, the outer bark and inner lining are scraped off. The naturally curled pieces of peeled bark (quills) are placed one inside the other to make long 'compound quills'. The best quills are placed on the outside and broken and smaller pieces in the centre. These left in the shade to dry completely and to prevent warping.  The long quills are then cut into smaller lengths and graded according to thickness, aroma and appearance. The quills can then be ground or processed into oil for cooking purposes.


Cinnamon in cooking


Experts say that true (Ceylon) Cinnamon should be for sweets and delicate dishes and Cassia for savoury dishes and stewed fruits.  However, as many of us have probably been using commercially ground cinnamon which is sometimes a mixture of cassia and cinnamon, we aren’t going to start a “snobby” fad  here.


Most of the cuisines from the areas where cinnamon grows features it heavily in savoury dishes such as moles, curries, roasted meats, vegetable and rice dishes, as does Arabic and North African cuisines – tagines are an excellent example.  It’s also contained in spices mixes such as the Indian Garam Masala,  the Moroccan Ras el Hanout and the Chinese Five spice.


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In the west, we have tended to favour its use in sweet recipes such as biscuits, cakes and desserts although this is changing with the huge exchange of culinary cultures which has taken place in more recent times.


As with most spices, Cinnamon should be kept in a cool dark place in an air-tight container where it will keep its aroma and flavour for many months.



Click here to find lots of Sweet and Savoury Recipes using Cinnamon



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