Cinnamon

Cinnamon

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

The smell of sweet cinnamon is as homely and comforting as your granny’s kitchen, and conjures up happy memories of freshly baked apple pies, cinnamon buns and Christmassy mulled wine. We take it so much for granted that it is hard to imagine that the history of cinnamon, like that of so many other spices, is dark and violent.

The Spice Trade is almost as old as civilisation itself and the desire for spices such as cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg lured Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek and Roman ships out into unchartered seas. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, enterprising buccaneers began the search for the Spice Islands in the East, which was the catalyst for great European voyages of adventure, the colonisation of new lands, the discovery, in fact, of a whole New World.

Cinnamon (and its rougher cousin, cassia) were two of the earliest spices to have been traded between ancient civilisations. Both were prized in early medicine and religious ceremony long before they were used in cooking. Cinnamon is mentioned in the Old Testament as an essential item in holy ritual, whilst the Egyptians used it for embalming their Pharaohs. The Queen of Sheba brought it with her as a precious gift for King Solomon; and the vicious Roman Emperor Nero, after murdering his pregnant wife Poppaea, reportedly burned her body upon the city’s entire stock of cinnamon in a showy gesture of remorse.

Cinnamon is thought to have entered Europe’s culinary repertoire in the last few centuries of Roman rule, but with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the supply of spices to the West dried up. Throughout the Dark Ages in Europe, however, Persia still had access to spices from the East via the overland route to China and across the Persian Gulf to India. The Persians’ imaginative and elaborate use of many spices and herbs in cooking is legendary. Indeed the lavish banquets enjoyed by Persian kings so dazzled the invading Arabs that they rapidly adopted many Persian dishes as their own.

During their Golden Age, the Arabs established a far-reaching empire and thriving trading networks from Persia in the east across North Africa and up to Spain in the west. Because of their strategic geographic position, Arab merchants had always played a key role in controlling the Spice Trade between East and West and, with the expansion of their empire between the eighth and twelfth centuries, they encouraged a renewed interest in spices all around Europe.

A lingering fondness for cinnamon in many Moroccan and Spanish dishes can be traced back to the Moorish occupation. In northern Europe, though, as cooking techniques evolved, the fondness for mixing sweet spices into one-pot savoury dishes declined. Cinnamon became, instead, the spice of choice for baking and sweet dishes, and to this day most English, Northern European, Scandinavian and American cooks limit its use to fancy baked goods, cakes and biscuits.

However, cinnamon remains an important spice in sweet and savoury Arabic cooking. It features heavily in Moroccan dishes – in the spice mix ras el hanout, or dusted onto soups, salads, couscous, tagines and, of course, bisteeya, the legendary pigeon pie. Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish and Egyptian cuisines use cinnamon in many dishes, and as a basic component of a range of different spice mixes.

Selecting, storing and using cinnamon

Cinnamon is harvested from the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree Cinnamomum zeylancium, grown mainly in Sri Lanka but also in Madagascar and the Seychelles. The bark is harvested during the rainy season, when it is pliable. As it dries it curls into long quills which are then cut into lengths and sold as the cinnamon sticks we use in casseroles and mulled wine, or ground into the powder we use for spice mixes or in apple strudel.

The quills of Cinnamomum zeylancium (or ‘true’ cinnamon) are a pale yellowish-brown with a mild sweet flavour. Cinnamomum cassia (or cassia) is a darker reddish-brown and has a stronger, spicier flavour. Cassia is rarely seen in Australia or in Europe, but is apparently commonly sold and used interchangeably with ‘true’ cinnamon in the United States. Cinnamon quills may be added whole to soups and stews to infuse their flavour into the dish. They should always be removed before serving. The quills can also be ground into a powder, but in most instances it is far simpler to buy cinnamon already ground.

The aroma and taste of both cinnamon sticks and cinnamon powder fade with age. There is really no way of knowing how long the spices in the little plastic packets or glass bottles have been sitting on the supermarket shelves. It is really best to buy very small quantities at a time, rather than risk having a jar sit on your spice rack at home for years on end.

Recipes in this Chapter

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