Despite arranging my stills for a frankincense distillation tomorrow, I made it my business to address a bag of Cinnamonum zeylanicum (verum) from the Seychelles. This past summer I went to the Seychelles islands, ostensibly for a vacation, and was seduced by their magnificent cinnamon forests, among with other aromatic treats.
Before my appendix burst on La Digue island, resulting in my very first helicopter ride back to the hospital on Mahé, emergency surgery, and a desperate attempt to flee home to Oman, my friend and I had spent 4 days ambling around Mahé, including trips to the botanical gardens, wild cinnamon forests, insanely pristine and exquisite beaches, plenty of coconut rum and, of course, a cinnamon distillery in Grand Anse.
I am so new to the world of cinnamon! Nearly a cinnamon virgin in fact. In addition to being one of those hot and sexy Indian Ocean spices, as exotic and fascinating as the sampans that surely transported spices to Arabia from the Moluccas, can there be a smell more imbued with the sense of home? Cinnamon rolls, Christmas time, hot apple pie, for Gods sake. Cinnamon may be one of the most American of all aromatics, at least to Americans!
Cinnamon swings in every way: olfaction and gustation; sweet and savory; comfort and adventure.....Cinnamon’s hot sweet spiciness warms and gladdens the gray days of winter. Cinnamon gives color to a black and white world--so she is really one of the most feminine of all spices.
Tall Tales of Yore
Naturally, when people traveled by ocean, the great trade routes stopped here in the Arabian Peninsula, then the center of the ocean going world. Spices came from the Far East across the Indian Ocean and up to Europe via the Red Sea and Alexandria. The local Arabs were the middlemen for this trade and of course, not being fools, invented fabulous stories about the origins of cinnamon; the terrible dangers that awaited those who dared to harvest it, the extreme bravery and cunning needed to acquire it and therefore, the high cost that was perfectly reasonable, given the circumstances.
It was said that cinnamon could be found making up the nests of huge and vicious cinnamon birds, who harvested the cinnamon from an unknown place, guarding their cliff-hanging cinnamon nests with eagle eyes and malevolent temperaments. These birds could easily tear men apart with their razor-like talons and beaks. The only way to lay hands on the cinnamon was to cut apart an ox, leaving the body in plain sight, and stealthily hide and wait for the carnivorous birds to fly down to claim it, taking it back to the nest, where the great weight of the ox parts broke apart the nest, causing the cinnamon to drop to the base of the cliff, where it could quickly be collected before the harvesters ran for their lives.
You can read about this in Herodotus’ Stories. He also suspected cinnamon grew in Arabia, along with frankincense and myrrh and was guarded by fearsome flying snakes. (These are possibly Omani carpet vipers, who live among the frankincense trees, and while they don’t actually fly, they can leap out of the trees.....)
Cinnamon is mentioned in all the old books, including the famous passage of the Song of Solomon “.....a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices: fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.”
And Psalms 7:17 “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.”
Also in the Hebrew Bible you can find many references to cinnamon, with Moses being told to use both cinnamon and cassia in holy anointing oil.
The cinnamon trade to Europe was controlled by the Arabs, then the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally, as the trade was declining in importance, the British. Like the drug trade today, it was extremely lucrative.
Cinnamon or Cassia??
Remember I’m not talking about cassia, just true cinnamon, Cinnamonum zeylanicum. Cassia, poor thing, is considered somewhat of a poor cousin to Cinnamon. Think Lavender/Lavandin. As lavandin is a respectable oil in it’s own right, as long as it’s not masquerading as lavender, so is cassia compared to cinnamon, and good as long as he’s not pretending to be someone he’s not. Carob and chocolate are like this too. Carob milk was delicious as long as you weren’t expecting chocolate milk.
Cassia is “Chinese cinnamon.” and while aromatically stronger, is not as subtle and nuanced. It’s also cheaper, so you find it masquerading as true cinnamon quite often.
The Trade Today
Cinnamon’s main home is the Indian Ocean--Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Madagascar and the like. It can grow in any tropical climate, but is happiest on Indian Ocean islands. Cassia is from China, and Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Vietnam, etc) has several species of its own.
France is a huge importer as is the US and Mexico. Let’s reflect for a minute on Mexico, the land that gave us both chocolate and vanilla. Just think about it.
The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje
If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.
Your breasts and shoulders would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.
Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbor to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler's wife.
I could hardly glance at you
never touch you
-- your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers...
When we swam once
I touched you in water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
You climbed the bank and said
- this is how you touch other women
- the grasscutter's wife, the lime burner's daughter.
- And you searched your arms
- for the missing perfume.
- and knew
- what good is it
- to be the lime burner's daughter
- left with no trace
- as if not spoken to in an act of love
- as if wounded without the pleasure of scar.
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler's wife. Smell me.