One day long ago on an island off the coast of India, someone noticed that when they cut down a certain type of tree, it refused to die. It grew little shoots right out of the stump and kept right on growing. Folks soon realized that, before these little shoots became too mature, they could cut one from the stump, peel off its hard outer bark, soften the inner bark in seawater, pound it thin, and let it dry. Abracadabra! It curled up lengthwise into a long, flaky stick which smelled great and tasted even better.
They called it “kurundu”; they sold it to their neighbors on the mainland, where it was called “karuvapatta”; they in turn traded it to the Persians, who called it “dar-chin”; from there, Arab boats carried it up the Red Sea to Egypt, where it was known by its Greek name, “kinnamomom”; by the time it got to the Romans, it was known as “cinnamon.”
In the ancient world, it was rare and highly prized. The Greeks brought offerings of cinnamon to the Temple of Apollo. It is referenced often in the Old Testament as a kingly gift. The Roman emperor Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon at the funeral of his wife.
By the Middle Ages, it was somewhat common in Europe, but demand kept growing. In the 1500’s, the Portuguese, looking for a trade route to the East, sailed around Africa. When they arrived on the island of Ceylon, they found the locals cutting little sprouts off of tree stumps and making cinnamon. Eureka! They had found the source of the spice, and they soon monopolized it. At least until 1638, when they were supplanted by the Dutch, who controlled the cinnamon trade for the next 150 years.
In 1796, the British got into the cinnamon business. They established cinnamon estates in India, China and Indonesia. Unfortunately, the cinnamon tree is not native to these areas, so the British settled for its more hardy cousin, the cassia, which has tougher bark and produces a harsher, less pleasant spice. But it was a pretty good facsimile, and it soon became the global standard.
That’s why today, when you order a Venti Dolce Latte at Starbucks you’re not actually getting cinnamon, you’re buying cassia. It’s less tasty than “true cinnamon.” Cassia lacks many of cinnamon’s anti-oxidant and anti-viral properties. Even worse, cassia has recently been shown to cause liver damage when consumed in high quantities.
OK, so it’s Friday during a pandemic, and you are probably working from home, so you’re thinking your coffee deserves true cinnamon. But how to get it, short of travelling all the way to Ceylon?
Well, you’re in luck. Because – just like teleconferencing – the spice routes that used to circle the globe have gone digital too. Shazam! You can order real cinnamon online, and have it delivered right to your porch via Amazon Prime.
Tomorrow. You have to wait one day. Be patient. Calm down. How many cups have you had this morning?
– Mike Keeler