Cinnamon is indigenous to Sri Lanka and although it is now widely grown in Asia, the West Indies and parts of South America, Sri Lankan cinnamon is regarded as the best quality. Cinnamon is often confused with the similar tasting cassia. Whilst they are both the dried bark of trees in the laurel family, cinnamon is finer and more delicate and a paler tan colour than the red-brown of cassia. Cinnamon is available in quills (strips of bark rolled one around another) and in powdered form.
The Portuguese controlled the trade in cinnamon in Sri Lanka until driven out by the Dutch in 1636. The Dutch artificially inflated the price of cinnamon by burning surplus supplies and it wasn’t until 1796 that their monopoly of the trade ended when the English took control. At about the same time the trade became more competitive with the establishment of plantations in India and Java.
Like other aromatic spices, cinnamon is suited to both savoury dishes (from Indian curries to Moroccan tagines to Chinese five spice powder) and sweet dishes such as baked apples, cakes and breads. References to cinnamon can be found in the Bible and in ancient Egypt to its use medicinally and as flavouring for beverages. It tastes warm and fragrant and has a sweet aroma. In medieval Europe, where one-pot cooking was common, cinnamon was a popular ingredient, often mixed with other spices (notably ginger), meat and fruits and sugar when available. This combination lives on today in that Christmas favourite, the mince pie.
Cinnamon is commonly used in making potpourri and incense. In ancient Egypt cinnamon was highly prized and worth more than gold. Cinnamon was an essential part of the spiced preservatives used by the ancient Egyptians when embalming their dears departed.
Traditionally cinnamon has important medical applications. It is used to reduce blood sugar and cholesterol. It is carminative and used to treat nausea, diarrhoea, flatulence, dyspepsia and colic. The essential oil is traditionally taken as an inhalation for colds and flu and is antibacterial and antifungal. In the Middle Ages ground cinnamon was rubbed onto rotting meat in the belief that its sweet aroma masked the stench of the meat. Subsequently it was realised that cinnamon’s antibacterial properties served to suppress the bacteria that caused the aging meat’s offensive smell.