The Spice From Bark

Leaves of Cinnamomum
Leaves of Cinnamomum

Back in the 1980s, before really good coffee was widely encountered, I was in a restaurant in Lenox, Mass. where the coffee they served was flavored with cinnamon. It gave it a rich full flavor and countered some of the acidity. It took very little cinnamon to achieve this make-over. The waitresses sprinkled less than a teaspoon on the grounds before they turned on the coffeemaker. (If the coffee was really third-rate, then it could be improved by adding a dash of salt with the cinnamon.)

This use of the spice was a bit of revelation to me, but it does have an analogous historical antecedent. The Romans used cinnamon to improve bad wine.

I, on the other hand, had grown up mixing it with sugar and sprinkling it on buttered toast. We actually kept a shaker with the cinnamon and sugar already mixed in the cabinet with the other spices and seasonings. I knew that it was also an ingredient in many of the baked goods that my mother made, particularly apple pies and oatmeal-raisin cookies.

The inner bark
The inner bark

Cinnamon was usually in powdered form in our household. Only during the late fall, when there was apple cider in the house would my mother purchase cinnamon in stick form. I remember being fascinated that this fine brown powder came from this strange little stick that looked it was made from rolled up cardboard. If the sticks didn’t get used up in the making of hot apple cider, then they just sat there all year.

During college I spent a semester in Denmark and noticed that cinnamon over there was much more often sold and used in stick form. I never gave this much thought until I read up on the botany of cinnamon. Several species of tree in the genus Cinnamomum (in the laurel family) are used to produce the spice, but the two principal species are C. verum, or “true cinnamon,” which was originally grown largely in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and was formerly known as C. zeylanicum. The other most widely used species is C. cassia, which was historically grown in several areas in China, but is now also grown in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

Most of what we get in the United States is called cassia in most of the world. It is harder when it is dried into a stick and cannot really be ground at home in a spice or coffee-bean grinder, and is therefore sold already ground. C. verum, on the other hand, is softer and almost crumbly when dried into a stick and can be easily ground at home. The cinnamon that I saw for sale in Denmark was “true cinnamon” from Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, or Madagascar, the principal modern growing regions.

Coppiced cinnamon trees
Coppiced cinnamon trees

The website for The Spice House (in Evanston, Ill.) tried to dispel the difference in the quality of the cassia (which seems to be the general term applied to the spice from several species of tree) versus “true” cinnamon. Most references describe the latter as a richer, more nuanced flavor with a hint of citrus, while cassia is considered to have a harsher taste. If this spice seller can be believed, decades of cultivation and breeding have created a cassia variety from the species C. loureiroi that is as richly flavored as C. verum. They insisted that their “Saigon cinnamon” was wonderful and that it was their best seller cinnamon-wise.

The spice is derived from the inner bark of the trees. Although if left to grow it (C. verum) can become a fairly large (40-50 feet tall) tree, when it is cultivated they let Cinnamomom grow for two years and then cut it down to a stump and then cover the stump with soil. Multiple small trunks then sprout from the stump, and it is these that are harvested for their bark. When the inner bark is removed, it is spread out to air dry, and it then rolls up into tubes of folded layers (called “quills”). The longer tubes are then cut into shorter lengths to be sold, or they are ground into a powder.


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