True Cinnamon

True cinnamon comes from a small evergreen tree in the Lauraceae family, which also includes the bay laurel and the avocado.  As with most tropical spices, it flourishes in equatorial sun and rain, but it is the “silver sand” of the coastal Negombo district north of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, which is said to produce the sweetest cinnamon. 

For thousands of years, the tree grew wild in Ceylon where its bark was harvested by local sultans.  Beginning in the 16th century, successive waves of European invaders—Portuguese, Dutch and English—fought for control of the island’s lucrative spice trade.  When the Portuguese invaded in 1505, they extorted an annual tribute of 110,000 kilograms of cinnamon which was shipped to Lisbon for distribution throughout Europe.    A century later, the Dutch East India Company forced out the Portuguese and established their own brutal monopoly.  In order to meet demand for the spice, they began to cultivate cinnamon in groves, a practice still followed today.  At one point, the harvest was so bountiful that the Company had to burn bales of cinnamon on the docks to keep prices from tumbling. 

According to U.S. AID, Sri Lanka today produces 60 percent of the world’s true cinnamon, and four fifths of the choicest grades of the spice.  It is also grown in the Seychelles and in Malagasy, although the quality is said to be inferior. 

In The Spice and Herb Bible, Australian spice merchant Ian Hemphill describes cinnamon peeling as “a magic show, where the hand appears to be quicker than the eye.”  In the groves, branches are regularly removed from each tree to promote new growth.  At harvest time, which occurs after the rainy season when the bark is supple, two-year-old limbs are lopped off.  The coarse outer bark is removed and the inner bark is rubbed smooth with a brass rod.  The magic occurs when the peeler makes two quick incisions with a curved knife known as a kokaththa and in one motion, removes a large section of fragrant inner bark.  These sections of bark are stacked in layers, allowed to dry indoors for several weeks, and trimmed into quills 42 inches long.  Graded by diameter, these are bound into 45-kilo bales for sale at auction.   Smaller pieces, known as quillings, are sold whole or ground into powdered form. 

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