March 2012


True Cinnamon
March 2012




The cinnamon tree

Sri Lanka is infused with the heady scent of spices that grow abundantly on her shores, none of which are stronger and sweeter than the pale brown parchment quills of the inner bark of cinnamon, one of the island's oldest and historically important exports.

Words Richard Boyle

From the dawn of commercial navigation, the Romans, Arabs and Chinese sailed to this island - Galle and Jaffna being ports on the Silk Routes - to acquire its fabulous merchandise such as ivory, ebony, tortoise-shell, pearls, and gems. Furthermore, the island's spices were in demand, particularly cinnamon, obtained from an endemic species, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, 
which has historically been considered the world's finest: a gift fit for a monarch or a god in ancient times. Pliny the Elder, during the 1st century AD, wrote that a mere 350 grams of cinnamon was equal in value to five kilograms of silver. Trade in it was such that Michel Boyn (1652) revealed: "There were to be seen in the Persian Gulf 400 Chinese vessels laden with Zeilan (Ceylon/Sri Lanka) cinnamon, spices and other goods."

"Zeilan cinnamon". Such a moniker was accurate, for even today this spice is given the same geographic identity in the spice trade, namely "Ceylon Cinnamon", and its fine quality is reflected by its grade, "True Cinnamon". The bark is paper thin, brittle, yellowish brown in colour, and highly fragrant; far superior to common cinnamon varieties such as Cinnamomum cassia, known popularly as "cassia", which is grown throughout Southeast Asia and has provided competition for Ceylon Cinnamon down the centuries due to its economical price.

Even the environs of Colombo once comprised large cinnamon groves, as is evident from the name Cinnamon Gardens

Despite such advantages, the island's cinnamon was not cultivated with commercial intent in earlier times. "It grows wild in the woods as other trees, and by them no more esteemed," explained Robert Knox (1681). "The wood which they burn is cinnamon," commented Ralph Fitch (1589), although it was often extracted from the fire due to its overpowering reek.

Cinnamon - kurundu in Sinhala, pattai in Tamil - was a royal monopoly and therefore brought no gain to the villagers. Nevertheless, it was - and is - added to vegetable, fish and meat curries, and also administered in the indigenous herbal medicine hela-veda, and later in India-imported ayurveda, 
to relieve, as Knox put it, "Aches and Pains" - more specifically in the abdomen and respiratory system. Cinnamon certainly has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and acts as a carminative and restorative. Moreover, recent studies suggest it may be beneficial in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, arthritis and cholesterol.

The arrival in 1505 of the Portuguese, the first European colonists, ended the non-commercial cultivation of cinnamon as they reorganised production and subsequently became the first Europeans to trade in True Cinnamon. The spice was precious enough for Portugal and Holland to engage in battle to control its trade, and in 1656 the Dutch seized the island, which was by then the world's largest cinnamon supplier. The Dutch East India Company substantially increased cultivation, and cinnamon became the main purpose
of the Dutch presence in the island.
"The shores of the island are full of it,"
a Dutch captain enthused, "and it is the best in all the Orient: downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea." 

Such an incredible olfactory experience became a widely-known traveller's tale, although it has been suggested that it was a hoax perpetrated by ships' crews on passengers - seekers of the exotic - with the clandestine application of cinnamon oil somewhere onboard. Nevertheless, the spice was cultivated exclusively on the island's western and southwestern seaboard, an ideal hot and wet habitat, along which ships made their approach from the west to the ports of Galle and Colombo. Even the environs of Colombo once comprised large cinnamon groves, as is evident from the name Cinnamon Gardens, now applied to the prime residential district. Where I live, 10km distant, there was a cinnamon grove until more recent times, and I am fortunate to have ten of the trees growing wild in my garden, so have been able to observe them closely.

Ceylon Cinnamon is a tropical evergreen tree of the laurel family that can grow up to seven metres in height. The ovate leaves with their five highly visible veins are the most remarkable aspect. When young they are cherry-like in colour, which then turns to lime green and finally dark green. They are particularly shiny, and have a thick texture that makes them rustle in seasonal winds. Blossom time I eagerly await, when the white, spicily-fragrant flowers attract myriad birds and bees. But it is only when I cut unruly branches that I experience the authentic smell of cinnamon.

When cultivated, cinnamon trees 
are pruned two years after being planted, which produces "tillering", an abundant growth of bark-yielding shoots. Harvesting starts when the trees are over three years old and takes place twice a year following the rainy seasons when the wetted bark is more easily stripped. Nevertheless, it is an intricate process, traditionally carried out by members of the Salagama 
caste who have no connection with the growers.

even today this spice is given the same geographic identity, "Ceylon Cinnamon", and its fine quality is reflected by its grade, "True Cinnamon"

The shoots are cut, scraped with a blade to remove the rough outer bark and then rubbed with a brass block to smooth the inner bark. A curved knife called a kokaththa is used to make two parallel cuts on the shoot after which the peeler manoeuvres the inner bark free in one piece. The next stage involves the pieces of bark being rolled together, a method called "telescoping". Then they are air-dried indoors and curled to resemble fine, papery quills. Finally, after being sun-dried, they are trimmed precisely to 106.7cm (42 inches), the length specified by the world cinnamon market, and packed in 45kg cylindrical bales.

Sri Lanka produces more than four-fifths of the world's output of the true grade of the spice, other exporters being China, India and Vietnam. Despite such overwhelming dominance in the world market, cinnamon was considered a minor export crop in comparison to tea due to its small land coverage. But in 2011, Sri Lanka unveiled Pure Ceylon Cinnamon, the country's second national brand, the first being Pure Ceylon Tea.

"...it is the best in all the Orient: downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea."

The main importer of Pure Ceylon Cinnamon is Mexico, where it is used extensively in the preparation of chocolate. Elsewhere, especially in Europe and America, it is employed to flavour desserts such as apple pie, doughnuts, and buns, as well as tea, cocoa and liqueurs. It is also employed in America to flavour cereals, bread-based dishes and fruits. In the Middle East it is used in savoury dishes of chicken and lamb, and cinnamon powder is used in soups, drinks and sweets.

So the next time you purchase cinnamon ensure that it is the best the world produces - Pure Ceylon Cinnamon, the True Cinnamon - and discover why humanity has prized its unsurpassed flavour and aroma from time immemorial.

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    Cinnamon sticks

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    Cinnamon Gardens in Colombo during the late 1800s

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    Peeling of cinnamon sticks circa 1900

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    Cinnamon sticks are broken into pieces before use

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    The large stacks of the cinnamnon bark, dried and stored

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    Peeling cinnamon in the present day

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    Cinnamon sticks being dried

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    The sweet fragrance of cinnamon is an incredible olfactory experience

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