In House and Leisure’s September issue, we explore spice-infused recipes that are vibrant, textural and eye-catching, reminiscent of a painter’s palette and proof that food really can be a work of art. This inspired a four-week series where we look at the history behind some of these spices. First, we explored za’atar, then paprika and last week, turmeric was the order of the day. For the last instalment of the series, we take some time to (re)discover cinnamon.
One of the most versatile spices, cinnamon can amplify savoury dishes like soup, add an unusual tang to meat dishes and, of course, it’s the star of the show in countless desserts. Cinnamon also forms an important part of many people’s beauty routines, and has been proven to lower cholesterol and act as an anti-inflammatory, which are just a few of the many health benefits of the spice.
The earliest recorded use of cinnamon was by the Egyptians in 2000 BC as part of the embalming process. Transported by Arab merchants along treacherous and cumbersome routes, the spice became very expensive and because of this, was seen as a sign of wealth. Merchants loved to spread tall tales about the origins of the spice, telling stories that involved enormous birds hoarding cinnamon sticks in their nests or venomous snakes that guarded the precious bounty – all of which only increased its popularity.
These myths were put neatly to rest in the 1600s when Portuguese traders discovered cinnamon in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). Trading of the spice then passed from Portuguese hands to the Dutch and then the British as different kingdoms came to occupy the area. By the time Britain got hold of cinnamon, it was no longer the luxury commodity it had once been as chocolate was fast taking its place.
Today, we have two basic types of cinnamon: Ceylon and cassia. The latter variety comes from Indonesia and has a stronger smell and flavour, making it great for sprinkling onto foods after cooking. Ceylon cinnamon is slightly more expensive and has a milder, sweeter taste that lends itself for use in baking and hot drinks.