How cinnamon reached Mexico

Moles are truly global dishes that combine New and Old World ingredients with spices from the Far East.  Although there are a number of theories about how cinnamon first came to Mexico, it is probable that the Manila galleon trade made it a culinary staple in Spanish colonial kitchens. 

From 1573 to 1811, Mexico was the nexus of a vast trade route which spanned 9,000 nautical miles.  Every year, treasures of the East—spices, silks, copra, gold, and pearls—were loaded onto massive 200-ton galleons in the Manila harbor.  Instead of catching the East-West trade winds, their crews steered a northerly course to Japan, where they caught ocean and wind currents which carried them across the Pacific to California and down the coast to Acapulco in four short months.  There, the cargo was bartered for Mexican silver and European products which went by return ship to the Philippines.  The goods from the East were carried by mule train across Mexico through the Sierra Madre del Sur to Vera Cruz where they were loaded onto other ships destined for Havana and Spain.  There, they were exchanged for European goods, and the ships headed back across the Atlantic, beginning the process all over again.

In America’s First Cuisines, anthropologist Sophie D. Coe tells us that four Asian spices—cinnamon, cloves, saffron and black pepper—were sometimes sold mixed by weight.  Ruperto de Nola, the late-fifteenth-century chef to King Ferdinand of Naples, provided a recipe for a “common sauce” in Libro de Cocinar, the Spanish version of his culinary opus.  The aromatic mixture consisted of “three parts cinnamon, two parts cloves, one part ginger, one part pepper, with the addition of a bit of well ground coriander seed and a bit of saffron.”  Most of these spices eventually became part of the mestizo cook’s repertoire.  In Oaxaca, cinnamon is traditionally used in combination with cloves, black pepper and a New World discovery, allspice.

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