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Country Views: Spicy history of cinnamon

I once knew a little Mexican kitty named Canela. This was when I could speak only a few words of Spanish. The word for cinnamon, which is canela (cah-NAY-la), was not among them. But I think you can imagine what color little Canela was.

The words canela and cinnamon both refer to a color and to the spice. In Spanish, canela also can mean a fine or exquisite thing or person.

This winter my grandson has taken to drinking hot milk with a cinnamon stick in the milk. If I said in English that my grandson was very cinnamon you would think I was strange. But if I said he was muy canela you would understand.

Well, anyway, this very fine grandson of mine was using his cinnamon stick to blow bubbles in the milk of his cup one day.

“Did you know cinnamon is from the bark of a tree?” his father asked him in an attempt to distract him from making cinnamon milk bubbles. Since every 3 year old knows that the world is bursting with an incalculable number of mind-boggling things, this cinnamon-as-tree-bark thing didn’t phase the grand boy. I’ve decided to learn more about cinnamon in the hope of providing my son with more tools to distract his son as needed. If nothing else, I can briefly distract you, dear reader.

I must begin by telling you a story. This story would certainly give pause to my grandson. I hope it will to you, as well.

Cinnamon was used by royalty in Egypt at least 4,000 years ago. Around 450 B.C. the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Arabia was the source of cinnamon. He and other authors of the day told about giant cinnamon birds that lived in that part of the world. These birds, the learned men wrote, collected cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where cinnamon trees thrived. The birds used these fabulous sticks to build their nests. Wily Arab nest thieves then stole the sticks from these ever-so-dangerous giant cinnamon birds using trickery known only to wily Arabs. Then these hard-won but tasty cinnamon bird nest sticks were sold to the highest bidder, and the profits were used to feather the nests of the above-mentioned Arabs.

So the story goes, anyway.

This wisdom was passed down from the Greeks to the Romans, and it was what was believed by learned men in the year 1248 when Sieur de Joinville, a scholar and counsellor for the French king, accompanied his king to Egypt on a crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the heathens. The liberation project did not go well, but the French scholar was able to add to the collective wisdom about cinnamon. Sieur de Joinville learned that cinnamon was fished up in nets at the source of the Nile out at the edge of the world.

It now appears that the crusader was wrong and so was the Greek historian.

You may not want to know this, but there are no giant cinnamon birds. Another truth that you may find painful to accept is that what you call cinnamon probably isn’t really cinnamon. It’s something called cassia. It’s not helpful to know that cassia is also called Chinese cinnamon or Vietnamese cinnamon because cassia just isn’t the real cinnamon McCoy. But these products are very likely what you’ll get when you buy “cinnamon” in stores in this country.

Most true cinnamon comes from a large island in the Indian Ocean that we used to call Ceylon but should now call Sri Lanka. You can call this stuff Ceylon cinnamon, or you can use its Latin name c.verum. Ceylon cinnamon is produced pretty much like the stuff made from cassia. My son was mostly right when he told his son it is tree bark.

Here’s how it works. A cinnamon or cassia farmer will plant a tree and let it grow for a few years. Then it is cut down. A lot of shoots will sprout from the stump. When the sprouts are 2 to 3 inches thick the farmer cuts them from the trunk and shaves off the outer bark. Then the inner bark is removed from the heart wood. The inner bark is the cinnamon and, in most cases, it is dried and rolled to form what we call sticks. But people in the cinnamon business call them quills. Before they are cut to length, some quills are quite long. They would be fantastic for blowing cinnamon milk bubbles. Oh! We’re not supposed to do that.

PS: Did you know there are cinnamon and cassia tree forests in tropical Asia? Maybe it is really true that once upon a time in a far off land there were giant cinnamon birds with spicy nests.

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