The spice series: cinnamon, cassia bark and cloves

Categories: Expert guidance

In this series, food writer and regular Borough blogger Ed Smith takes an in-depth look at the many spices available at the Market. This month: cinnamon, cassia bark and cloves

It seems appropriate, given we’re nearing advent, that the first two posts of this new series cover spices that are redolent of the season. In December, I’ll be looking at nutmeg, mace, and allspice. But we begin with some thoughts on cinnamon and clove—the spices that scream nativity, over-indulgence, and warming puddings and drinks.

That said, a spice is for life, not just for Christmas. So, what more can we learn about these festive flavours?

Cinnamon is one of the ancient spices, mentioned in Greek, Roman and Egyptian texts. In those early periods it was as likely to have been burnt as incense or used for perfumes as it was to have been cooked with. However, from the Middle Ages onwards (at least), cinnamon has been an invaluable ingredient across multiple cuisines.

While Europeans made frequent use of this spice (which is the inner bark stripped from various trees under the genus cinnamomum), it is a commodity they would have imported rather than grown. The precise origins of cinnamon are a little muddied by a complicated trade route, but what is clear is that in modern times there are two countries in particular which are responsible for the cinnamon that we consume: Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Around eighty per cent of the world’s ‘true cinnamon’ (the Cinnamomum verum variety) is grown, harvested and rolled in Sri Lanka. The country produces in the region of 10,000 tonnes a year, rolling tight quills about a metre long, drying them and then cutting them into the lengths that we’re accustomed to. The flavour of it is sweet and gentle, ideal for puddings and baking.

Another 20-25,000 tonnes of cinnamon are produced across the globe, made up of at least another five species of cinnamon tree. Indonesia accounts for two thirds of that amount: a variety that is more robust, thicker, darker and suited to curries, stews and slow braised meat. It’s aromatic and spicy, but not as sweet as the Sri Lankan variety.

Both types are available at Spice Mountain.

Though sometimes used as a term to refer to the flavour of cinnamon, cassia is technically the bark of the Chinese cinnamon tree. Originally from southern China, this bark is now cultivated all across south-east Asia. It’s not rolled like cinnamon—it really does just look like bark.

Like cinnamon, cassia is often just left whole to infuse into the stew or curry that it’s used in. But it can be ground too—most often as part of a garam masala spice mix.

Perhaps confusingly, at the large commercial level cassia bark is often ground into powder and sold as cinnamon. Which is fine if you’re making something savoury. But wouldn’t it be good to know exactly what you’re using? If you’re looking for really sweet, delicate cinnamon, it’s worth sourcing the Sri Lankan variety. If cassia is actually what you’re looking for, the dried, unrolled bark is available at Spice Mountain.

Cloves are also a spice that have been traded for thousands of years. In The Book of Spice, John O’Connell notes that archaeologists have found evidence of cloves in Syria from around 1720BC—even though the only place that the unopened buds of the clove tree could have been grown and harvested were the volcanic islands of Maluku, some 6,000 miles away.

Over the thousands of years that have followed, cloves have remained an important, well-travelled spice—in China, where they were used as a breath freshener, across the Middle East, and through European cuisine, where of course we love (or hate) them in a variety of Christmas recipes.

The dried buds look a little bit like a short nail, and are often just used whole and fished out before eating. Cloves can be found in powder form too, or ground at home. It’s wise to use the spice in this form sparingly. Despite its power, in my experience, it doesn’t last as long as other spices do, so don’t sit on a pot for too long.

Culinary uses
As mentioned, cinnamon is a flavour that we know at both a sweet and savoury level. I’ll refer to the spice at a general level from now on, but do remember the distinction between Sri Lankan (sweet), and Indonesian and cassia bark (savoury).

In her book The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit notes that cinnamon is both homely and exotic. She’s so right. Some flavour pairings and uses are as English as any, like apple pies, spiced rice pudding, and of course matched with clove in mulled wine, plum pudding and mince pies. Others help you to travel the world despite still being sat at your dining table.

For example, as soon as it’s included alongside anise, cinnamon evokes the Orient, quite probably because of its use in Chinese five spice.

Put it with orange, lamb or butternut squash, and you may as well be in the Middle East.

Roll it with sugar among a pastry and you’re in Scandinavia. Or, staying on a sweet theme, dust it over milky, coffee or hot chocolate, or mix it into pumpkin purée and bake it into a pie, and you could be sat anywhere in the United States of America, telling your family about the things you’re thankful for.

Cassia bark is vital to so many Indian spice mixes; it provides a sweet, deep spicing and is crucial to counter the vinegar sourness of vindaloo, or to mellow coconut milk in Keralan cuisine. Think too of a sticky, intense Malaysian beef rendang.

Cloves have a similarly global appeal, though are perhaps not used quite so freely. You might find it in coffee if in Ethiopia, or with ground ginger or anise in Eastern cuisine (again, it’s a crucial part of Chinese Five Spice).

There’s a warmth to cloves, which add depth to a beef stew, as many a Frenchman has found.

But surely, the culinary usage that many of us are particularly familiar and fond, is stuck into an onion to infuse into the milk with which we make bread sauce, or into an orange to flavour mulled wine.

Specific recipes to look out for
There are, of course, many recipes and food writers that have made the most of these spices. But a few cinnamon and clove heavy ideas that I’ve cooked and particularly enjoyed include:

—Yotam Ottolenghi’s butternut squash and tahini spread in Jerusalem, which will make you really appreciate cinnamon and roasted squash.

—Justin Gellatly’s (of Bread Ahead) apple and cinnamon doughnut filling in Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding. Mixing cinnamon with sugar and using it to dust puff pastry, an apple tart or many other sweet things is an easy treat too.

—Meera Sodha’s cinnamon and clove pilau with cashew nuts in Fresh India. See also her awesome cinnamon lamb curry and cinnamon ice cream in the same book.

—Niki Segnit’s suggestion in The Flavour Thesaurus that you add cloves to the pickling liquor poured over a peach.

—And my recipe that goes alongside this post: a cinnamon and clove spiced fig, polenta and almond cake.

Market spice heroes
While I wanted to show that cinnamon and clove are two spices that cover a multitude of cuisines, and both sweet and savoury food, it’s hard not to point to the warming drinks available at the market during the winter period. Cartwright Brothers offers a classic mulled wine to sup while you’re walking around. And, if you’re not planning on getting tipsy, there’s a really good cinnamon and clove spiced warm apple drink at Chegworth Valley

For an introduction to the meaning of ‘spice’ and tips on sourcing, grinding and storing, read Ed’s introductory post.