The scent and taste of Cinnamon are an essential part of Christmas. It forms part of many Christmas baking recipes and flavours mulled wine. Cinnamon sticks are even used to decorate Christmas wreaths and scent the home.
True Cinnamon comes from the bark of the Cinnamonum verum tree. It is a member of the Lauraceae or Laurel family. Another member of the Lauraceae and Cinnamonum genus also produces a bark product that is sold in the world as Cinnamon too. This is called Cinnamonum cassia or Cassia. European labelling does not allow any subterfuge. The genuine Cinnamon originates from Sri Lanka, whereas Cassia is produced in China, Indonesia and South Vietnam. Quoted figures range from 80-90% of all true Cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka.
Cinnamon v. Cassia
Many consumers perhaps cannot tell the difference. A direct comparison reveals that true Cinnamon is paler and more brittle than Cassia. Cassia has the stronger flavour and darker colour of the two. Most notably, Cassia should not be eaten in excess as it contains higher levels of Coumarin and has the potential to damage the liver. True Cinnamon is more expensive than its cheaper substitute Cassia.
Why so expensive?
Two videos in the references below show the similarities and differences in harvesting methods. In both, the bark is peeled off and scraped. The quills curl as they dry in the sun. There is greater tree management involved in the production of Cinnamon. A Cinnamonum verum tree requires 4 years of growth after planting before it is ready for the first harvest. Harvesting takes place between 8 months and a year thereafter. A type of coppicing is used to encourage strong, straight shoots. Whereas Cassia is cut straight from the tree, a Cinnamon branch is cut in the early morning while the bark is still moist to work on for hours at home.
Experienced Cinnamon peelers can slice very fine quills from the branch with a brass rod with a thorough, painstaking approach. Firstly they strip the outer bark. Then they work on slicing thin strips from the inner bark. A long day’s work will only result in about 3 pounds of quills to sell onwards. The quills are officially graded. There is a scale of up to 10 grades. The top and most valuable grade takes an experienced Cinnamon peeler 4 times longer than it takes him to produce the lower grades. There are concerns about a future shortage of skilled Cinnamon peelers as the next generations are not so interested in following in family footsteps.
Climate Change poses another threat to Cinnamon production on Sri Lanka. Cinnamonum verum trees need marshy wet soil to survive. The increasing frequency of long droughts poses a threat to their survival. Cinnamon was one of the first spices to find its way to Europe. It made the trek from Ceylon and China 3,000 years ago to Southern Arabia before reaching us. It was once more valuable than gold with a place in divine worship, funerals and medicinal remedies.
Cinnamon is another cherished food from a plant source that will need careful management to ensure its future.
You can find recipes for Cinnamon Stars on the BBC Good Food’s website or in Anja Dunk’s Advent cookbook in the references below.
© Karen Andrews
References and Further Reading
- Case, Frances Ed. (2008): 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die. A Global Guide to the Best Ingredients. Quintesssence. London.
- Davidson, Alan (2006): The Oxford Companion to Food. Second Edition. Edited by Tom Jaine. Oxford.
- Dunk, Anja (2021): Advent. Festive German Bakes to Celebrate the Coming of Christmas. Quadrille. London.
- Griffin, Anne (?): Cinnamon – a festive favourite. Kew.
- Hancock, James F. (2021): Spices, Scents and Silk. Catalysts of World Trade. CABI.
- Insider Business (2021): Why Ceylon Cinnamon is so Expensive. YouTube.
- Mode Foodie (2015): Cinnamon: Harvesting Cassia in the Jungles of Sumatra. YouTube. 15 April 2015.
- van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005): Food Plants of the World. An illustrated guide. Timber Press.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.