23 January 2010

From the archive: Rethinking Cinnamon

Rethinking Cinnamon
Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
Julia May Copyright 2007, revised 2010

The word cinnamon recalls memories of Grandma's baking, holiday treats and Cinnabon at the malls. It is a powerful word for evoking memories today, it is also a powerful word in trade during the period of SCA study. Yet, somewhere along the way society has replaced the flavor of cinnamon with the flavor of cassia- while continuing to call it by the evocative name of “cinnamon”.

A distinction between them has been noted since ancient times, when cooks and physicians would admonish the use of “true” cinnamon (also called Ceylon cinnamon) in order to get the proper balance in a dish or remedy. Not surprisingly, cinnamon is dry and hot in humeral theory, best suited to use in January and February according to one Byzantine text.[i] By the eleventh century, cassia was included in perfume recipes.[ii] Both kinds of cinnamon were pricey. Stories would abound of the dangers in collecting cinnamon-- thereby explaining the costliness of the spice. Phoenix nests were reportedly made of it, and had to be watched daily in case shuffling in the nest would cause some of the precious spice to fall to the ground below. Other sources of cinnamon were said to be culled from trees in terrible swamps where giant bats would protect it.[iii] Nero is said to have burned a year’s worth of cinnamon at the death of his wife, so noted because of the exorbitant cost. 

True cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, is grown in Sri Lanka (once called "Ceylon") today, though is probably native to India. Cassia, C. Cassia, is also from the bark of an Indian tree. Both have used since ancient times. Centuries later Columbus found the source of what is today know as Mexican cinnamon. A fellow Spaniard, Dr. Chanca, wrote of the white cinnamon, Canella winterana, also stripped from the bark of a tree.[iv] The difference in flavor is striking. While each is clearly “cinnamon” to a modern pallet the Ceylon is richer and less pungent, whereas the cassia is bolder and spicier in flavor. Mexican cinnamon is the flavor in Red Hot button candies.

The modern cook, while shopping at a traditional grocer, will be hard pressed to find anything other than cassia. Labels simply say “cinnamon”, as do ingredient lists. However, in specialty stores (such as Penzys) and on the Internet (Auntie Arwen's) one can find selections of four or more different cinnamon choices including Saigon cinnamon, or Cinnamomum loureirii, used in modern perfume making; Ceylon cinnamon and two to three kinds of cassia.

[i] Dalby, Andrew. Flavors of Byzantium. Prospect Books: Devon, England. 2003.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Faas, Patrick. Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome. Palgrave: New York. 2003.
[iv] Dalby, Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. U of California Press: Berkley. 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment