Not Just Another Tree Bark
Once used in love potions and to perfume wealthy Romans, this very ancient spice comes from the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree that thrives in Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon, a name still used to identify true cinnamon) and the Malabar Coast. It is extremely mild whether rolled in a stick or ground. Sadly, much of the so called cinnamon available on the market is actually cassia, a close but much less delicately flavored relative. While used mostly in sweets, it adds intrigue to savory dishes and meats. Oil of cinnamon comes from the pods of the tree and is used in flavoring and as a medicinal.
In ancient Egypt cinnamon was used medicinally and as a flavoring for beverages. It was also used in embalming. In the ancient world cinnamon was more precious than gold. Nero, emperor of Rome in the first century AD, burned a year’s supply of cinnamon on his wife’s funeral pyre — an extravagant gesture meant to signify the depth of his loss.
Cinnamon was known in medieval Europe, where it was a staple ingredient, along with ginger, in many recipes. Since most meals were prepared in a single cauldron, casseroles containing both meat and fruit were common and cinnamon helped bridge the flavors. When crusaders brought home sugar, it too was added to the pot. Mince pie is a typical combination of this period which still survives.
The demand for cinnamon was enough to launch a number of explorers’ enterprises. The Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka immediately after reaching India in 1536. The Sinhalese King paid the Portuguese tributes of 110,000 kilograms of cinnamon annually. The Dutch captured Sri Lanka in 1636 and established a system of cultivation that exists to this day. In its wild state, trees grow high on stout trunks. Under cultivation, the shoots are continually cropped almost to ground level, resulting in a low bush, dense with thin leafy branches. It is commonly used in cakes and other baked goods, milk and rice puddings, chocolate dishes and fruit desserts, particularly apples and pears. It is common in many Middle Eastern and North African dishes, in flavoring lamb tagines or stuffed aubergines. It is used in curries and pilaus and in garam masala (an Indian blend of sweet spices). It may be used to spice mulled wines, creams and syrups. The largest importer of Sri Lankan cinnamon is Mexico, where it is drunk with coffee and chocolate and brewed as a tea.
When cinnamon is unavailable ground cloves may be used as a substitute.