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Cinnamon:  Eight Leagues Out to Sea

It was the seventh annual Apple Butter Boil at the Peace Covenant Church in Durham, North Carolina.  A resolute band of six had stayed up all night, stirring a copper cauldron of applesauce with a long-handled wooden paddle to keep it from scorching.  “This is a community effort,” said Kate Spire, the cheerful, pink-cheeked pastor, as several children muffled in sweaters and gloves ran by, squealing with laughter.  It was a clear cold morning and the air was alive with the fragrance of bubbling fruit and the smoke of hickory logs blazing beneath the enormous pot.  

The Apple Butter Boil is a fall tradition that began decades ago at Spire’s former church in Pennsylvania Dutch country.  “Thirty of us would sit in a circle, making apple snitz:  Each of us peeled, cored and sliced two-and-a-half bushels of apples very thin.  Then we cooked them down in a kettle with apple cider.”  Spire’s North Carolina parishioners will sell their apple butter to raise money for a building project.  It's part of the connection between faith and communal eating in country towns across America.

By noon, the applesauce had been reduced to a thick, russet-hued butter.  A test spoonful was plopped on a plate.  “It’s ready,” said one cook.  “Let’s add the sugar.”   And they did—one pound for each of the 45 gallons of apple butter.  As the sugar dissolved, they stirred the syrupy mixture and when it thickened again, shoved the logs out from under the kettle.  Then they added cinnamon, in one stroke transforming apples into ambrosia. 

Moving Center Stage 

If America had a national spice, it would probably be cinnamon.  We sprinkle it on our sugary doughnuts and over our apple pies.  For those raised on cinnamon toast and rice pudding, it is the spice that smells and tastes like home—an emotional tug not lost on scores of humdrum consumer product companies.  It is one of Coca-Cola’s “top secret” ingredients and the “bold blast of flavor” in Crest Whitening Expressions toothpaste.  It may even have inspired Martha Stewart’s Alderson crime spree:  After a raid on the Camp Cupcake prison pantry, the domestic diva was nabbed with a stash of cinnamon, brown sugar and butter, smuggled in her bra. 

But here are two points to ponder: Although we think of it as a sweet spice, the rest of the world uses cinnamon in savory main course dishes.  In the moles of Mexico, the tagines of Morocco and the curries of India, the spice performs culinary legerdemain, drawing out the sweetness of fruits and vegetables, tempering the richness of nuts and seeds, transforming ordinary meats into sensuous stews.  This way of using cinnamon has a long history reaching back into the Middle Ages—and it is stirring again in the most current kitchens. 

Here’s the other point: The spice most of us call cinnamon is actually cassia, a close cousin.  The confusion between the two is a long and tangled tale, which begins, as do so many spicy stories, in Asia. 

True Cinnamon:  Made in Ceylon 

True cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, the tear drop-shaped island off the southern tip of India whose coastline was ravaged by the 2004 tsunami.  It was cinnamon that brought European invaders to the shores of Serendib, as it was once known.  Long before they could see land, sailors knew they were getting close when the fragrance of the spice enveloped their ships.  “When one is downwind of the island, one can smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea,” a Dutch captain reported.  The British bishop and composer Reginald Heber immortalized this in his 1819 “Missionary Hymn” with a line that begins, “What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s Isle….”  

Although it now grows in other places, true cinnamon is still known as Ceylon cinnamon, or cinnamomum zeylanicum, after the island’s former name. 

True cinnamon is pale golden brown in color.  The whole spice is sold in rolled sticks, known in the trade as “quills.”  If you look at the end of a quill, you will see that it consists of many individual pieces of crumbly bark rolled into concentric layers.  Sniff the bark and its aroma may seem pallid, somehow less “cinnamony” than that of its more potent cousin.  Persist and you will discover a subtly complex fragrance: sweet, warm, and woody with whispers of clove and citrus. 

Now take a bit of cinnamon bark and chew it.  First your mouth puckers with a tight, mildly astringent sensation.  Then it is suffused with warmth.  A well of sweetness blossoms.  The flavor of cinnamon—spicy, with faint woodsy undertones—washes over the palate.  At the end, there is a little bite, a fleeting pungency. 

When you cook with true cinnamon, all these lovely nuances of flavor infuse the dish.   Pastry chefs often use it in delicate creations which might be overwhelmed by cassia’s stronger flavor.  But in Mexico, where true cinnamon is favored, one small stick can transform whatever is simmering in the pot.  In the moles of Oaxaca, cinnamon does not trumpet its presence, but works behind the scenes, eliciting sweetness here, adding astringency there, melding disparate ingredients into vibrant layers of flavor. 

Surprisingly little Ceylon cinnamon is sold in the United States.  Most Americans associate “cinnamon” with the stronger taste of cassia, and in fact, prefer that spice, which also happens to be much cheaper.  In 2004, the U.S. imported 14.5 million kilos of whole cinnamon and cinnamon tree flowers—but only 1.2 million kilos came from Sri Lanka at an average cost of $4.58 per kilo.  When you compare the price of cassia—12.6 million kilos imported from Indonesia at $.62 per kilo—you begin to understand why a bottle labeled “cinnamon” usually contains its cheaper cousin.

Another reason is that, unlike England, the U.S. has only the most general labeling requirements.  The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 specifically allows all cinnamomum species to be sold as “cinnamon.”  If you want the real thing, you must locate a spice merchant who knows the difference.   Look at the international section of your supermarket, as well; you may find it among the Mexican spices, labeled canela.

For more on true cinnamon, click here.

Cassia: A Different Spice 

Although cassia smells like cinnamon, it’s different.  Light to dark reddish- brown in color, the dried bark rolls inward from each end, forming hard, scroll-like quills.  Cassia breaks with a snap, whereas true cinnamon tends to shred or crumble when it is broken.  Cassia’s fragrance is pungent and cinnamon-like, but relatively one-dimensional, lacking the complexity of the other spice.  When you chew cassia bark, its “cinnamony” sweetness quickly turns hot and it has a rough, astringent edge. 

Cassia is thought to have originated in Burma, but today Indonesia grows over half of the world’s supply.  The most flavorful Indonesian cassia (cinnamomum burmanii) is grown near Mount Korintje on the island of Sumatra.  It is very aromatic, with a straightforward, hot, familiar cinnamon taste.  Nearly 80 percent of the “cinnamon” sold in America is actually Indonesian cassia.

Cassia is also grown in China and Vietnam.  Chinese cinnamon (cinnamomum cassia), sometimes sold in chunks, is sweet with a peppery bite.  It is an essential ingredient of Chinese five-spice powder, and is used in the “red-cooked” or “red-braised” dishes of Hunan province. 

Vietnamese cassia (cinnamomum loureirii), also known as Saigon or Bakers Cinnamon, is so powerfully aromatic that Penzey’s, a Wisconsin-based spice purveyor, recommends using half the specified amount in most recipes.  Grown in central Vietnam, cassia (along with star anise) is used to flavor pho, a slow-simmered beef broth served with lime, mint and basil.  Vietnamese craftsmen make fragrant boxes from cassia bark which can be used for storing sugar. 

The French call cassia “bastard” or “false” cinnamon (although they sell both as cannelle), but it is a marvelous spice in its own right.  Cassia is delicious with fall fruit such as apples and pears, and with pumpkins and autumn squash, precisely because its pungency makes sweet flavors less cloying.  It marries beautifully with chocolate (as does true cinnamon), and adds complexity to savory dishes such as curries and tagines. 

For more on cassia, click here.

Cinnamon Chemistry 

Cruising the perfume aisles at Sephora, we occasionally find ourselves stopping at Demeter, a purveyor of fragrances based on remembered smells.  Tucked in amongst Dirt and Sex on the Beach, are comforting scents right out of the kitchen: Cinnamon Toast, Cinnamon Rolls and Pumpkin Pie. 

Could cinnamon be an aphrodisiac?  Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder and neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, believes that it is:  Men—at least American men—seem to be aroused by the scent of cinnamon when it is combined with the aroma of baked goods.  In one of the foundation’s research studies, men were attracted to the smell of cinnamon rolls.  In another, they blissed out on the fragrance of pumpkin pie combined with lavender.

Cinnamon has been used in perfume for millennia, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East.  Ancient Egyptians anointed themselves with susinum, a heady blend of lilies, cinnamon and myrrh, much as women today spray themselves with Dior’s Poison (cinnamon is a sultry base note).  Even the Bible acknowledged its power of attraction:  In the Book of Parables, a seductress lured her prey to a bed strewn with cinnamon, and in the Song of Solomon, it was one of many spices in a lover’s garden of aromatic plants. 

Its warm, woody fragrance has so long been associated with the pleasures of the flesh that for some, the very word “cinnamon” is sensuous.  In Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado endows his alluring backwater cook with copper-colored skin and a spicy scent, enthralling the more cosmopolitan café owner, Nacib.  “And how could he live without her,” writes Amado, “… without her bright and timid smile, her cinnamon-colored skin, her smell of clove, her voice whispering ‘beautiful man’….” 

The power of cinnamon—or any aroma—to stimulate or comfort us is surely cultural as well physiological.  But even if our responses are a bit murky, science clearly knows what creates cinnamon's attractive scent.   In his web-based reference, Spice Pages, chemist Gernot Katzer notes that its distinctive odor comes from cinnemaldehyde, a yellowish oily liquid that is released when the bark is crushed.  Oil of true cinnamon is 65 to 75 percent cinnemaldehyde, which puts it at the mellow end of the scale. As Harold McGee notes in the second edition of On Food and Cooking, the flavor profile of true cinnamon also includes compounds such as eugenol (clove), cineole (eucalyptus) and linalool (lily of the valley), all of which contribute to its complex taste and aroma. 

Oil of cassia, on the other hand, is more potent, consisting of 75 to 90 percent cinnemaldehyde.  Some variation among cassia species may account for differences in flavor.   Chinese cassia, for example, contains 8 percent coumarin, which has a vanilla-like aroma that makes it sweeter than its Indonesian counterpart.  The intensely pungent Vietnamese cassia bark contains nearly double the essential oils—and hence more cinnemaldehyde—than any other cinnamon or cassia.                                         

Flavor for Wine and Funerals 

For all its alluring aroma and flavor, cinnamon was not much used in cooking, at least in the West, until relatively recent times.  It is a very ancient spice, perhaps the oldest known to man.  The first written mention occurred around 2,700 BC when the Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, referred to cinnamon in a treaty.  He called it kwei and it is likely that it came from either Sri Lanka or the adjacent southern tip of India.  A thousand years later, the ancient Egyptians were making use of its antimicrobial properties for embalming, and they also burned it in their funerary rituals. 

The Greeks and Romans knew of cinnamon and cassia, but  as many culinary historians have noted, Arab traders invented fabulous tales to keep them from learning where the spices were grown.   In the 5th century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus reported that kasie was collected from a shallow lake in Arabia “infested by winged creatures like bats, which screech horribly and are very fierce.”  Pieces of kinamomon bark, he said, were brought to Arabia by “large birds which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices which no man can climb.”  To get the bark, men supposedly hacked up dead oxen and, when the birds carried the meat to their nests, the heavy joints would cause the nests to fall—allowing the traders to dash in and pick up the cinnamon. 

It is said that such elaborate stories not only concealed the Asian origins of cinnamon and cassia, but also explained their prohibitive cost.  In The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire, J. Innes Miller devotes an entire chapter to the convoluted route by which cinnamon reached the West.  Outrigger canoes carried spices from Eastern Indonesia across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and up the East coast of Africa  to the now vanished port of Rhapta. From that point, they were transported across Africa or through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.  Other routes took cinnamon up the Persian Gulf, skirting the coast of Arabia, eventually going overland to Egypt. 

But is this the real story?   In A Mediterranean Feast, Clifford A. Wright says that the cinnamon and cassia we know today are botanically different from the spices described by writers such as Theophrastus and Pliny.  These, he believes, were not members of the cinnamomum family, but came from a “xerophilious shrub” that grew in thorny woodlands near the Red Sea.  Wright further argues that none of the spices that came into the Mediterranean from the Arabian peninsula originated in the Orient, but were aromatics native to Arabia and East Africa. 

Whichever story is correct, it appears that the ancient Greeks used “cinnamon” mainly to flavor wine.  Nor was it included in the list of spices Apicius deemed essential for the upscale Roman kitchen in de Re Coquinaria.  Instead, the Romans adopted the Egyptian custom of burning it at funerals.  This practice culminated most extravagantly in 66 A.D., when the Emperor Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon at the funeral of his wife Poppea—a gesture inspired by guilt, one suspects, as she died from brutal kick to the stomach.  But as for cooking, it would be another millennium before European chefs would discover its pleasures. 

Ice Cream, Puddings and Pies 

In America and much of Western Europe, cinnamon is categorized as a “sweet” spice, but its mouth-puckering bite is what makes it desirable in so many desserts.  “You can put sweet with sweet, as long as it’s not overpowering,” explains pastry chef Mark Tachman.  “It’s almost a yin-yang sort of thing.  Cinnamon may taste sweet, but it has an astringent edge that complements other rich, sweet ingredients.” 

Tachman dips into the cinnamon jar more often as the weather grows colder.  “I wouldn’t use it with most summer fruit—peaches are an exception—or with citrus.  It lends itself more readily to fall and winter fruits, and it’s wonderful with chocolate.”  At 411 West, an Italian café in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Tachman makes a rich cinnamon ice cream to accompany buttery apple tarts. Unlike most cinnamon ice creams we’ve tasted, his version is intensely flavorful.  In a similar vein, he poaches ripe pears in red wine with cinnamon sticks, allspice and nutmeg.  Sometimes he reduces the liquid and serves it as a syrup over vanilla ice cream.  A Mexican-style chocolate pot de crème gets a kick from cinnamon and ground chile peppers. 

Cinnamon-spiced desserts are an old American tradition—which originated in England.  Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796), said to be the nation’s first truly indigenous cookbook, makes liberal use of spices from the English pantry:  Besides cinnamon, her recipes call for nutmeg, mace, ginger, allspice and, in an exotic touch, rose water.

Simmons encouraged her readers to grow at least one apple tree “in some otherwise useless spot, which might serve the two fold use of shade and fruit.”  For apple pie, she first stews the fruit, then flavors it with cinnamon, along with lemon peel, mace, rosewater and sugar, before placing it in a “paste” or crust.  Three of her six variations on rice pudding include cinnamon; two of the other three call for “spices to your taste”.  Only “a cheap one” relies solely on allspice.  Other puddings—bread, flour, apple and carrot—are flavored with cinnamon as are various “plumb,” “rich,” and “loaf” cakes. 

None of these recipes would raise an eyebrow today.  More intriguing, however, are Simmons’ recipes for mince and other meat pies.  These concoctions, filled with raisins and apples, sweetened with sugar and flavored cinnamon and mace “to the taste of your circle,” are both sweet and savory.  Reminiscent of medieval English cookery, they harbor distant taste echoes of the North African and Middle Eastern cuisine that trickled into Europe with soldiers returning from the Crusades. 

Morocco: Sweet and Savory 

Let’s jump, for a moment, to Fez, Morocco where nearly every evening, the renowned Maison Bleue serves its version of 14th-century couscous to guests lolling on brocade cushions.  The steaming couscous, embedded with chunks of lamb and onion, arrives on a platter, mounded high, almost like a volcano.  The “slopes” are crisscrossed with a lattice of ground cinnamon and powdered sugar, and the whole is strewn with blanched almonds. 

For the uninitiated, the first forkful can be disconcerting.  The meaty, salty chunks of lamb (or mutton, the evening we were there) are at odds with the sweetness of the sugar, and the cinnamon seems to have taken a wrong turn from another recipe.  It is an unfamiliar taste, yet with each bite oddly more appealing.  To our Western palates, it is nearly as exotic as La Maison Bleue itself, with its kaleidoscopic zellij tiles, rosewater-scented passages and hypnotic trance music. 

Sweet and savory dishes are still part of the modern Moroccan repertoire.  Lamb tagine with prunes is a classic stew in which chunks of lamb and onion are slow-simmered with cinnamon sticks, saffron, ginger and garlic.  In the version served at La Mamounia in Marrakech, prunes are poached in a sugar syrup and added to the tagine just before serving.  There are many similar recipes in Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food.  Djaj bel Loz, chicken with almonds and honey, is particularly wonderful.  Here, chicken and onions are cooked with cinnamon and other spices until the chicken is tender; then it is spread with a paste of almonds, rosewater and honey, and baked until golden.  In both dishes, cinnamon is the harmonizing spice, the bridge between sweet and savory tastes. 

These main course Moroccan dishes are so delicious that one wonders why cinnamon has been stuck on the dessert trolley in most Western cooking.  After the crusades, when Venice ruled the waves, cinnamon was one of the most lavishly used spices.  In Savoring the Past, food historian Barbara Ketchum Wheaton notes that it was the “most esteemed” of the bitter flavors in medieval cookery.  “Combining its bitterness with aromatic overtones and vivid color,” cinnamon was used in countless recipes and was favored over all other spices, save for pepper.  In 14th-century France, one of the most popular sauces was camelline, which Wheaton describes as a mixture of cinnamon, vinegar and toast crumbs “with the consistency of mustard.”  This may have been the sauce that Taillevent served with capon to Charles VI.  By the 1500's, it was ubiquitous in Italian cookery. 

However, Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to the East Indies in 1498 was the beginning of the end.  Portugal, Spain, Holland, England and France jumped into the spice fray, ruthlessly carving up oriental kingdoms and sultanates in their quest to own the sources of production.  As heavily laden ships sailed into the ports of Amsterdam and Cadiz, cinnamon and other spices became plentiful and affordable—and when that happened, they lost their cachet.  Highly seasoned dishes fell out of the cook’s lexicon and simpler fare came into vogue.  

Oaxaca: The World in One Pot 

Of course, there are lots of places in the world where spices rule the kitchen.  One of those is Oaxaca, Mexico.  If you walk through the city’s frenetic Mercado de Abastos, you will be overcome by the variety of chiles displayed in baskets and bins: the dark red chile pasilla oaxaqueno, redolent of wood smoke; the orange, fruity-flavored chile chiltepec; the expensive, blue-black chilhuacle negro; and many more.  Here too you will find shaggy sticks of Ceylon cinnamon, or canela, traditionally the only cinnamon used in Mexico. 

Chiles and canela are key ingredients of  the celebrated seven moles of Oaxaca.   The word mole comes from the Nauhuatl molli, which means “mixture.”  As Diana Kennedy notes in her book, From My Mexican Kitchen, it usually refers to cooked sauces.  Typically chiles, nuts and seeds, vegetables, fruits and spices are toasted, pounded, ground, pureed and simmered to produce a rich, thick sauce that is often savory and sweet. 

In Seasons of My Heart,  all but one of Susana Trilling's mole recipes have a touch of fruity sweetness:  There are raisins, ripe plantains and chocolate in the Mole Negro, pineapple and plantains in the Manchamanteles (which translates as “tablecloth stainer"). Most include canela, usually in combination with other spices such as cloves, allspice and black peppercorns.  As Trilling observes, no single taste ever dominates a mole:  Cinnamon breathes a subtle perfume into the mix. 

For more on how cinnamon reached Mexico, click here. 

Canela is also an essential ingredient in Mexican chocolate, traditionally made of cacao beans ground with sugar and almonds.  For a chocolate lover, there may be no greater thrill than placing an order at Chocolate Mayordomo, one of Oaxaca’s premier chocolate shops.  Located just a block or two from a bustling market, the entrance is marked by a huge burlap bag of cacao beans standing open on the sidewalk. Inside, an apron-clad senora feeds the cacao and other ingredients into a deafeningly loud grinder—the proportions of canela, almonds and sugar, and the type of cacao beans are up to you—and slowly a rich, viscous paste oozes out.  To dip a finger into this warm chocolate “lava”—and taste it—before it cools and hardens is a voluptuous experience in a city of culinary delights. 

The Return of Cinnamon 

Lately there are signs that that cinnamon is having a  resurgence.   A few omens from the restaurant world: 

Jean Georges Vongerichten, New York’s virtuoso of spices, uses cinnamon's fabled sweet and bitter tastes to infuse duck and chicken with unexpected layers of flavor.  In Jean Georges:  Cooking at Home with a Four Star Chef, he browns chicken in butter and olive oil, then strews it with shallots, cardamom and a cinnamon stick.  A splash of vinegar is reduced to a whisper, then port wine and chicken stock are added to the pot, and the chicken is roasted in the oven over high heat.  The resulting sauce is complex, both sweet and tart with a subtle Arabian flavor. Cardamom’s bright pungency is balanced by cinnamon’s low notes, while   its astringency keeps the sweetness of the dish in check. 

Vongerichten is not alone.  At San Francisco’s Fleur de Lys, Hubert Keller tops a vibrant fresh pea and carrot soup with brioche croutons sprinkled with cinnamon.  In Los Angeles, Ludovic Lefebvre, the tattooed French chef at Bastide, transforms green lentils with a spoonful of ground cinnamon.  Plump langoustines are glazed with the spice, and he poaches chicken breasts in a liquid of verjus, veal demi-glace and chicken stock flavored with two sticks of Ceylon cinnamon.  Recipes for all three dishes may be found in his cookbook, Crave: A Feast for the 5ive Senses—a title which seems to sum up our new-found passion for sensuous flavors.

Savory dishes scented with cinnamon may never become as American as apple pie.  But the next time you braise lamb shanks, simmer lentil soup or make fresh tomato sauce, toss a stick of delicate Ceylon cinnamon or pungent Vietnamese cassia into the pot.  Globalization is a good thing:  It is bringing back forgotten culinary traditions and infusing contemporary  fare with historic flavors.  Cinnamon is a sweetly fragrant link to our past and to the far corners of the world.  And the taste, well … it is delicious.