Samui Wining & Dining

All you ever needed to know about one of the world’s most exotic spices.

P10It’s a startling thought. And, today, it’s almost impossible to imagine. But where would we be without Facebook, Twitter and the other social media? Not too long ago people were marvelling in the same way about the magic of e-mail. But now it’s all smart phones and instant messages and photos. And that means crazes can spread like wildfire. Remember the ‘no make-up selfies’ that swept around the world a few months ago? Or ‘the ice bucket challenge’?

Or, on a less-global scale, about two years ago, stuttering around The States, for some odd reason that nobody can now recall, there was another passing social epidemic. The result was that, in just a few weeks, the Governor of Illinois did it live on a radio show, two national league basketball players were chastised for videotaping and Facebooking it and a school in Pennsylvania banned knee-length boots because of it. The boots were being used to smuggle the stuff into school. It was cinnamon. The challenge was to eat a whole spoonful of it, dry, without a drink.

Going back to the days when it took six months to send a message, things were undoubtedly more sensible. Cinnamon was being gainfully employed by the ancient Egyptians as an essential part of the embalming process; it reduced the stink somewhat. Around this period, most of the trading was in the hands of the seafaring Arabs, and it was they who brought cinnamon to Europe, via Egypt and North Africa, somewhere around the time that Christ was born.

At which point the Roman Empire ‘discovered’ it and got all excited. As their empire expanded, they were constantly coming across new fruits and herbs and spices, but this one was something special. It changed hands at about the same rate as one year’s wages for a working man, and the emperor, Nero, was so upset by the death of his wife that he burned Rome’s entire stock of cinnamon on her funeral pyre. But then he was a bit strange anyway, and the same emperor who later fiddled happily while Rome went up in smoke.

Then came the Age of Discovery for real. In the 16th century, sailors from Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and England all took off on ocean voyages across the globe in search of new lands, colonies and plunder. Romantic novels of this time are based around tales of gold, silver and jewels. But the fact is that, in terms of sheer value, the trade in exotic spices was easily equal to this and shipping was considerably more frequent. Salt was worth a great deal, as was pepper; a notion we find strange today. Cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger and turmeric, together with saffron, gradually yielded up their secrets, and traders sailed directly to their countries of origin, rather than haggling for them at inflated prices in the European marketplace.

All, that is, except one. For almost 2,000 years, the wily Arab traders had kept very tight lipped about the origins of cinnamon. And, despite the plethora of European merchantmen and traders that were sailing the seven seas, none of them ever came across cinnamon. To hang on to their monopoly and maintain its exorbitant price, the Arabs spun mysterious tales about where and how they got the stuff. The main yarn was that eagles carried the cinnamon sticks to their nests in remote mountain tops. Arab cinnamon gatherers then left big chunks of meat below these nests for the birds. Thus, when the birds struggled back with the meat, its weight would cause their nests to collapse, allowing the crafty hunters to dash in and collect the scattered cinnamon.

One big red herring was the fact that there are, in fact, two types of cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon was found in many regions, but it wasn’t the real thing. This is pungent and strong, often even harsh in flavour. The rarer Ceylon cinnamon, milder and sweeter, was only to be found in . . . Ceylon. But by 1700 AD, both the Dutch East India Company and later, it’s rival in England, The East India Company, had mastered the cultivation process and established widespread cinnamon estates in India, where it was produced and exported along with rubber, coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate.

Today we still come across these two types of cinnamon: Cassia cinnamon is primarily produced in Indonesia and remains the more pungent of the two varieties. This is the sort that we usually find in grocery stores and sprinkle on our apple pies or French toast. But the more expensive and milder Ceylon cinnamon, most of which is still produced in Sri Lanka, is mainly used for baking, and also flavouring hot drinks, such as coffee or hot chocolate.

Many people are surprised to learn that cinnamon is actually the bark of a tree. It’s the inner bark of several trees in the genus ‘Cinnamomum’. When the tree is around two years old, it is cut down to a short stump, and it then grows back like a bush, putting out numerous side shoots. These are cut and skinned, then stripped of their bark, which subsequently curls naturally in the sun. These ‘quills’ are universally graded into four sizes of different lengths, with the longest being around 15 inches. Cinnamon has a crumbly texture, and is easily ground using something like an ordinary coffee grinder.

It’s actually quite beneficial, in addition to its flavouring properties. Medicinally, an oil is extracted from the bark and leaves, the active ingredients of which contain antibacterial, antiseptic, antiviral, antispasmodic, and antifungal properties. It contains eugenol, which is both sedative and analgesic. Additionally, cinnamon oil is used to break down fats in the digestive system, and is used to treat nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach ulcers, acid indigestion, heartburn, lack of appetite, and abdominal disorders.

So there you have it. From being found in mountain eagles nests by Arabs, to Emperor Nero’s love of burning things, to rubbing it on your gums. And you can even sprinkle it on your buns, if you want. Now you know all about cinnamon – it’s entirely up to you what you do with it!


Rob De Wet


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