Did you know that most cinnamon you buy in the United States is not cinnamon at all, but actually a spice called “Cassia”? Often referred to as “real cinnamon” or “true cinnamon”, Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. This cinnamon is lighter brown in color, papery and brittle and the bark coils into a single spiraled quill. Ceylon cinnamon is rarely found in United States and has significantly less of the phenolic compound cinnamaldehyde, which imparts the spicy cinnamon flavor and aroma desired by American palates. Instead, this cinnamon has a more delicate and complex flavor, with citrus, floral and clove notes. There is an Indian type of cinnamon as well known as Dalchini. In India, where it is cultivated on the hills of Kerala, it is called “karuvapatta” or “Elavanga Tholi”(Malayalam) or “dalchini” (Hindi).
In the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder wrote of 350 grams of cinnamon as being equal in value to over five kilograms of silver, about fifteen times the value of silver per weight.
Medieval physicians used cinnamon in medicines to treat coughing, hoarseness and sore throats. As a sign of remorse, Roman Emperor Nero ordered a year’s supply of cinnamon be burnt after he murdered his wife.
The spice was also valued for its preservative qualities for meat due to the phenols which inhibit the the bacteria responsible for spoilage, with the added bonus being the strong cinnamon aroma masked the stench of aged meats.
In the 17th century, the Dutch seized the world’s largest cinnamon supplier, the island of Ceylon, from the Portuguese, demanding outrageous quotas from the poor laboring Chalia caste. When the Dutch learned of a source of cinnamon along the coast of India, they bribed and threatened the local king to destroy it all, thus preserving their monopoly on the prized spice.
In 1795, England seized Ceylon from the French, who had acquired it from their victory over Holland during the Revolutionary Wars. (In the Victorian language of flowers, cinnamon means “my fortune is yours.”)
However, by 1833, the downfall of the cinnamon monopoly had begun when other countries found it could be easily grown in such areas as Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Mauritius, Réunion and Guyana. Cinnamon is now also grown in South America, the West Indies, and other tropical climates.