Cinnamon used to be harvested by shooting leaden arrows into the cinnamon quill nests of cinnibirds. Their nests, built high amongst slender branches would come toppling down, the precious cinnamon with it. Other times, the birds were lured with carcasses of meat. Burdened with the extra weight, the nests would rain down. Or at least according to Herodotus and several other Greek writers. Pliny The Elder, on the other hand called bull and said it was nothing more than a marketing ploy. Oh, Pliny, Ye of little faith.
Though, he was right of course.
The Cinnibird or Cinnamologus was an invention by Arabian merchants to hide the true origins of cinnamon, as well as a way to amp up the price.
So, if not stolen from the nests of birds, then where? Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is native to the island of Sri Lanka. It's botanical name even references the island, zeylanicum is based on Sri Lanka's previous name of Ceylon. But, it wasn't until 1270 when the first written mention was made by Zakariya al-Qazwini in his book, Monument of Places and History of God's Bondsmen, that Cinnamon grew in Sri Lanka. For centuries, the island was fought over by several Western countries—control the source, control the trade.
Within plantations, cinnamon trees are grown for about six years, sometimes longer, so the branches can be harvested as well. Preferred ways of growing differ from grower to grower and region in the world. Most of the tree is chopped down, leaving a stump from which a new cinnamon tree grows—thinner and divided—this process is also known as coppicing. The tree grows faster than it's first incarnation, since the roots have already established—four years on average. Cinnamon trees have a lifespan of forty to fifty years, and unless they get infected by pests, they go through several cycles of growing and being coppiced. At the end of their life they are replaced by a new cinnamon tree, and baby cinnamon trees can always be found growing around a larger one.
Another, more popular way of growing cinnamon in Sri Lanka is to train the tree as a bush. Pruned to grow about five to six stems.The straightest stems make for an easier harvest, so the bush is often tied together to encourage upwards instead of sideways growth. It grows to a maximum height of 8ft/2.4m and when ready, one or two of the stems will be harvested. This generates enough new growth, and leaves enough for another three to four harvests.
Once cut, the outer bark is stripped or shaved away, an incision is made on the inner bark and then removed in strips. There is a real skill to rolling cinnamon. A long strip of cinnamon is placed flat, and filled with other strips of bark, once filled, it's rolled tight. After rolling, the cinnamon is dried or cured on tight strung wiring and after one to two weeks it's ready to be sold.
What the casia?
Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), another species of the cinnamon genus, is native to China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In Vietnam, cassia is grown as tree. After the tree is planted it is left to grow for up to twenty years, after which rectangular patches of bark are cut off, which curl into a heart shaped tube as they dry. Cassia is what you'll find in most of the Western world on the average supermarket shelf and in food products under the guise of real cinnamon. So, what's the big deal, I mean it's still belongs to the same genus, after all. Cassia is darker in colour, and unlike real cinnamon, almost impossible to break apart in your hands—dried cassia is a few millimetres thick, and comes in one single part. True Cinnamon, with its paper thin inner bark rolled tight like a cigar, you can strip or break apart with your fingers. A downside to cassia is it's high percentage of coumarin, which is damaging to the liver, especially in sensitive individuals. but, the biggest difference has to be the flavour.
Cassia punches, and cinnamon waves. With cinnamon you can make out a few citrus notes at first sniff, a gentle spiciness and a sugary back tone. Cassia hits you in one go with intense spice and sugar notes.
So, next time you're craving something cinnamony, why not take a closer look, and a closer sniff.
Love this post, why not share it
- Nabhan, Gary Paul. Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: a spice odyssey. University of Californian Press, 2014.
- Segnit, Niki. The Flavour Thesaurus: Pairings, recipes and ideas for the creative cook. Bloomsbury, 2010.
- The Medieval Bestiary. 2011. Cinnamologus. [ONLINE] Available at: http://bestiary.ca. [Accessed 27 February 15]
- BBC/Roland Buerk. 2007. In Pictures: Sri Lanka's Spice of Life. [ONLINE] [Accessed 28 February 15].
- The Internet Archive/Pliny The Elder. Natural History of Pliny. [ONLINE] [Accessed 3 March 15].
- Humble, Kate. The Spice Trail: episode 1, pepper & cinnamon. BBC TWO, 2011.
Extra information was added to this entry on the 12th of March 2015. Thank you to Rupert Beeley from Cinnamon Hill for explaining more about the growing methods of Ceylon Cinnamon in Sri Lanka and Cassia Cinnamon in Vietnam.
I spend hours and hours each week, researching and studying, but at the end of the day, it's still a learning process. Therefore, If you think I got any of the information wrong, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email with the correct information.