Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A History of Cinnamon and Its Sweet, Hot Lies

I always love a dash of cinnamon in my coffee or to compliment other spices, and since cinnamon is one of the most popular spices in the US, it’s likely that you do too.  Every time you grab the cinnamon at Starbucks or your grocery store though, it’s just as likely that you’re not using real cinnamon, but one of its cousins. 
Cinnamon is one of the oldest known spices, being mentioned in imports to Egypt in 2000 BCE.  It’s mentioned specifically in the Talmud, and was considered a precious gift—keep in mind this is before spices were easily obtainable, and their origins and how they found their way to the table were just as exotic as their flavors.  Hundreds of years before Columbus sailed on his quest for spices, no one at the end of the spice trade was sure where exactly their cinnamon came from, and since much of the world was a complete mystery to the average customer, anything seemed feasible. 
This brings us to the story of the cinnamon bird, a bird first mentioned in Book III of Herodotus’s Histories in the 5th century BCE, and what I imagine is the sort of conversation that often happened at the market as a customer learned all about a merchant’s cinnamon:
Spice Merchant:  You must try!  This spice, it is delicious!  It smells sweet but is also warm!
Customer:  You’re right, I love it!  How much?
SM:  How much do you pay your lord for your rent each month?  I’ll take that.
C:  Robbery!  Surely it’s not worth that much.
SM:  Oh but it is sir, it is.  You don’t know what my fellow merchants have been through to obtain this spice, just for you!  They have had to risk the wrath of the mighty cinnamon bird!
C:  The what?
SM:  The cinnamon bird!  It is a giant bird, a winged beast that finds pieces of this cinnamon as it flies across the faraway lands of Arabia, building its nest from the cinnamon on rocky cliffs, and woe to any man who is caught trying to steal this spice from the cinnamon bird!  And so to obtain it, to get this cinnamon and bring it to you, he must accomplish a true feat of daring.  He must distract the cinnamon bird, and only then is the cinnamon left vulnerable for gathering.
C:  How terrifying!  What must he do?
SM:  You see, the cinnamon bird only builds its nest atop dangerous cliffs on the shores of the sea.  The hunter must first kill a great ox, and drag it to the beach.  This alone is dangerous; for his death is certain if he is seen by the great bird!  After leaving the ox upon the beach, he must wait in hiding for the bird to see the dead animal and be tempted by it.  The cinnamon bird will then fly down and grasp the ox in its talons, flapping its great wings, and carry the ox to the top of the cliffs, dropping it into its nest.  But the ox is so heavy, it will cause the cinnamon bird’s nest to collapse, sending twigs of cinnamon raining down upon the sand!  The hunter must then run from his hiding place, gather up as much cinnamon as he can carry in the few minutes the great bird is panicking from the loss of its nest, then run back to his home, thankful to still be alive!
C:  I have heard of these exotic lands, and can only imagine the many horrid beasts that live there!  This cinnamon bird sounds terrifying, and to face it must indeed have taken true bravery!
SM:  I know, right?  Which is why this cinnamon is so expensive.  Make sense now?
C:  It does, it truly does.  I can’t believe I doubted its worth before.  Here, take all my coins—I’ll get the rest to you next week!
Stories of the cinnamon bird were passed down and varied for hundreds of years, until people started to suspect that maybe, just maybe, this was a big fat lie concocted by merchants to drive up the price of cinnamon, and no giant, ox-eating birds were actually involved.  By this point, however, Italians had a monopoly on the spice trade and the average merchant or customer had no choice but to pay whatever price was quoted.  Eventually other European countries decided they’d had enough paying for overpriced spices, and that it was worth the risk to send out the crews and ships in search for their own routes to exotic lands.
Over the years, cinnamon was cultivated elsewhere in the world and it was realized that cinnamon’s close cousin, cassia, tastes close to the same thing and is easier to harvest.  Both contain cinnamaldehyde, the essential oil that has that signature cinnamon smell, but cassia has a stronger, more astringent taste, while cinnamon is more “layered” and complex.  The ground cinnamon you’ll find in stores, or the hard cinnamon sticks you can try to grate or just place in a mug of cider?  That’s all cassia, and has been used as a cheaper cinnamon substitute since around the 18th century.  True cinnamon is called Ceylon cinnamon (Ceylon being the name given to Sri Lanka by the British centuries ago), has finer layers and a more brittle, crumbly bark.

Cinnamomum verum, "true cinnamon"

Cinnamomum aromaticum, cassia
Ceylon cinnamon is certainly still available, it just takes a little more effort and money to purchase it.  After all this time tasting cassia, however, the general population is more used to it and expects that strong cinnamon taste, preferring it to the subtler flavors of Ceylon cinnamon.  Nobody tell the cinnamon bird though—it’ll be irritated it built and lost all those nests for nothing.

1 comment:

  1. At least it has that delicious ox to drown it's sorrows?