Edible histories: cinnamon

Categories: History of food

From ancient Greek killer bats to Ecuadorian misadventures, via Roman funeral pyres and medieval sexual dysfunction, Mark Riddaway tells the spicy story of cinnamon and cassia

In a romantic poem known a little unromantically as Fragment 44, the Greek lyric poet Sappho told of the spectacular wedding of Hector and Andromache, doomed nobles of the city of Troy. As the streets filled with people and “a wondrous echo reached the heavens”, spices were burned to mark the nuptials. “Myrrh and cassia and frankincense were mingled. And the older women wailed aloud. And all the men gave forth a high-pitched song.”

Sappho, who composed these lines on the Aegean island of Lesbos around 600BC, clearly considered cassia an offering fit for mythical royalty. And if another Hellenic heavyweight, Herodotus, writing some 150 years later, is to be believed, it’s easy to see why this spice—also known as Chinese cinnamon—would be so highly valued.

The Arabs who gathered cassia were forced, he said, to “bind ox hides and other skins all over their bodies and faces except for the eyes.” This was required because the spice, which grew in a shallow lake, was guarded by “winged creatures, very like bats, that squeak similarly and make a fierce resistance”. If anything, getting hold of cinnamon was harder still, restricted as it was to the nests of giant “cinnamon birds”. The Arabs “cut dead oxen and asses and other beasts of burden into the largest possible pieces”, then used them as bait for the birds, hoping that the weight would bring the nests crashing down, scattering the cinnamon. Another Greek, Theophrastus, disagreed: cinnamon wasn’t hoarded by birds, it was guarded by “deadly snakes”.

Clearly, this was nonsense—but revealing nonsense. Cassia and cinnamon were embedded in ritual and religion throughout the ancient Mediterranean. The Egyptians, for example, used cassia in the embalming of their dead. In the Hebrew Book of Proverbs, among dozens of biblical mentions, an adulterous harlot tempted her lover by telling him: “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.” And yet the writers of the period had no idea where the spices that enlivened the tombs, pyres and bedrooms of antiquity really came from. Even now, all we can say with any real certainty is: not a lake of killer bats.

Sweet and delicate
Whatever their true origins, these spices had travelled a staggeringly long way, from places so distant that neither producer nor consumer had the slightest clue about the other. Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of several tree species from the genus Cinnamomum, native to south and southeast Asia. The sweetest and most delicate hails from Sri Lanka. Another, from Indonesia, is thicker, darker and more robust. The pungent spice known as cassia (the distinction, while often explicit, is by no means universal—most ground cinnamon sold today is actually cassia) comes from a tree native to southern China and Vietnam.

Pliny the Elder dismissed any talk of bats, snakes and birds (“All these tales have been evidently invented for the purpose of enhancing the prices of these commodities,” he sneered), but his description of how cinnamon came to ancient Rome offered little clarity. The spice, he wrote, was purchased by the Troglodytae (‘cave dwellers’ in Greek) from their neighbours, the Ethiopians, then carried on a five-year round trip “over vast tracts of sea, upon rafts, which are neither steered by rudder, nor drawn or impelled by oars or sails”. This dangerous journey ended at an Arabian port he called Ocilia.

Pliny noted that in “return for their wares” the cave dwellers “bring back articles of glass and copper, cloths, buckles, bracelets, and necklaces; hence it is that this traffic depends more particularly upon the capricious tastes and inclinations of the female sex”. Many elaborate theories have been constructed to identify Pliny’s cave dwellers and ‘Ethiopians’, but unlike his contempt for women, which was razor sharp, his geography was frustratingly opaque.

Once this cinnamon made it to Rome, it wasn’t used by cooks. Pliny made brief mention of a cinnamon-infused wine, but the spice was otherwise absent from Roman culinary literature—it was the fragrance and exoticism of cinnamon, not its flavour, that made it worth the high prices it commanded and led to it being used as an extravagant addition to the cremation rites of the wealthy.

A golden age
The transport of spices from Asia to Europe was interrupted by the disintegration of the Roman and Persian empires, but the trade was revived on an even grander scale after the 7th century, as the rapid expansion of Islam laid the foundations for a golden age of intercontinental commerce. In the 11th century, Simeon Seth, the Jewish-Byzantine scholar, was noting that the best cinnamon could be bought in the Iraqi city of Mosul, suggesting that overland spice routes from Asia were well established, while Kitab al-Tabikh, an Arab cookbook written in 1226, showed that the spice had become deeply embedded in his region’s cuisine.

Cinnamon, “rough, thick, tightly coiled, with a penetrating aroma, burning to the tongue”, appeared in the majority of the book’s meat, fish and vegetable dishes, either whole, pounded, scraped or ground. It was, however, entirely absent from the chapter on sweets—in 13th century Baghdad, cinnamon was not a spice for the dessert section.

It was a Moroccan scholar and explorer, Ibn Battuta, who provided one of the first references to Sri Lankan cinnamon. After visiting south Asia in the 1330s and 40s, he described how the island’s shoreline abounded with the spice: “The whole of its coasts are covered with cinnamon trees brought down by torrents and heaped up like hills on the shore.” Merchants from the Malabar coast—the hub of the Indian spice trade—would, he wrote, sail over to load up on Sri Lankan cinnamon in exchange for woven products, which they presented to the local sultan.

From the entrepôt ports of the Islamic world, spices were brought to Europe by Venetian traders, where their vast expense limited them to the households of the very wealthy. Medieval Europe’s relationship with cinnamon was closer to that of the Middle East than of ancient Rome—the elite, while appreciating its fragrance, clearly enjoyed cinnamon as a culinary spice. In the Forme of Cury cookbook (c.1390) from the royal court of Richard II, “powdour of canel” or “flour of canel” (a word derived from the Latin ‘cannella’, meaning ‘little tube’) featured in recipes for everything from swan to rabbit, from eel to lamprey. One of Europe’s most popular sauces was camelyne sauce, a mix of breadcrumbs, vinegar, nuts and fruit, with a big hit of cinnamon.

Curing ailments
Like most spices, cinnamon was believed to be a potent drug. It was, physicians thought, both hot and dry in character, so could counter illnesses caused by cold, moist humours. As early as the 8th century, Northumbrian cleric Bede was noting that cassia is “useful for curing the ailments of many bodily organs” while cinnamon is “twice as efficacious” as a medicine. The 12th century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen stated that cinnamon, heated with good wine, can cure fevers and gout, and that a heavy head and blocked nose can be cleared if the spice is eaten with bread or licked from the hand.

Its hotness of character gave cinnamon another sought-after power. Sexual dysfunction was linked to an excess of humoral coldness, so hot spices were considered of great benefit in the bedroom. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale, an ageing knight marries a much younger woman, who will end up cuckolding him with a squire. To keep his “courage” strong enough for his bride to be satisfied, the knight “drynketh ypocras, clarree, and vernage / Of spices hoote”. These drinks were the medieval equivalent of the pills peddled today by email spambots.

Ypocras (or hippocras), a spiced wine, was frequently cited as an aphrodisiac, and cinnamon was a key ingredient. Le Ménagier de Paris (1393), a French treatise on wifely obedience, said of the drink that among the many spices used “the cinnamon and the sugar should dominate”. John Russell provided two recipes for hippocras in his Boke of Nurture (c.1460-70)—a posh one that included cinnamon and one “for commyn people” based on its cheaper cousin, cassia.

The medicinal and erotic powers of cinnamon, combined with the lustre of its exoticism, meant that demand was high. In 1492, when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in search of a westward route to Asia, one of his aims was to circumvent the Arab-dominated trade routes, along which countless middlemen drove prices ever higher, and make a fortune by bringing spices directly to Europe.

Riches of the Orient
Having ‘succeeded’ in his quest to reach the Indies—he really hadn’t—Columbus was convinced that he had alighted upon the aromatic riches of the Orient. “I believe that I have found rhubarb and cinnamon,” he wrote to King Ferdinand of Spain, “and I shall find a thousand other things of value.” The second part of that statement had some truth to it; the bit about rhubarb and cinnamon didn’t. What he had actually found was some Caribbean bark.

Long after the realisation had sunk in that the Americas were not Asia, this wistful search for cinnamon continued. In 1540, Gonzalo Pizarro drove an expedition of 250 Spaniards and 4,000 natives into the jungles of Ecuador in search of El País de la Canela—the ‘land of cinnamon’. Two years later, after a descent into starvation, rage and unfettered savagery, Pizarro returned with around 80 surviving companions and absolutely no cinnamon.

While the Spanish were desperately sniffing their way around American woodlands, the Portuguese were finding an infinitely more successful way of sourcing Asian spices: sailing to Asia. In May 1498, Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, the great entrepôt of India’s Malabar coast. In the years that followed, the Portuguese became increasingly aware that the best cinnamon in Malabar’s spice markets hailed from a nearby island referred to variously as Ceilam, Cillam, Zilon or Zallon: Sri Lanka.

In 1505, Dom Lourenço de Almeida landed in Sri Lanka and extracted a tribute of 150 quintals of cinnamon from the King of Kotte, one of several rival kingdoms on the island. Returning in force, the Portuguese built a fortress at Colombo in 1517 and took control of much of the island’s coast. For just over a century, they dominated the European cinnamon supply.

Cinnamon gardens
Then the Dutch, who had promised to assist the King of Kandy, the largest Sinhalese kingdom, in seeing off the Portuguese, reneged on their treaty and kept the Portuguese lands for themselves. It was the Dutch who built the first cinnamon gardens around Colombo—previously all Sri Lankan cinnamon had grown wild. Holland’s money-spinning monopoly would be toppled in 1785 when the British forcefully suggested that maybe they should be in charge now, then brutally overthrew the King of Kandy for good measure.

As access to cinnamon grew, its place in the British kitchen underwent a significant evolution. In tandem with the burgeoning availability of sugar, cinnamon came to be increasingly defined by its inherent sweetness. A Book of Cookrye (1591), listed cinnamon as a flavouring for baked pig, mutton balls, sparrow stew and the wonderfully named “pudding in a turnep root”, while also incorporating “sugar, sinamon and ginger” as a trinity of flavourings in a dozen fruit tarts, a sweet “buttered loaf” and a dish of stuffed pears, the instructions for which require the cook to fill the fruit with “sugar, ginger, sinamon, more sinamon, then ginger”.

By the time Hannah Glasse was writing The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (1747), cinnamon was featuring in a litany of desserts—fruit puddings, rice puddings, cakes, custards, pancakes, chocolate—but was almost entirely absent from the savoury side, and so it remained. Uses of cinnamon have broadened out again as our appetite for exotic flavours has reached medieval proportions, but it is still predominantly a spice for cakes, buns and just about anything containing both sugar and egg. And mulled wine, of course—the modern version of hippocras, no longer widely regarded as a health drink, but potentially still a fuel for passion. Depending on how lively your Christmas party becomes.