It is said that the Emperor Nero, distraught over his part in the death of his second wife, ordered all the cinnamon in Rome to be burnt on her funeral pyre. The scent of this romantic yet guilty act must have been truly amazing but history doesn’t recount what the Roman citizens thought when their valued spice was taken from them.
Like so many of the spices that we take for granted, cinnamon was once highly prized (and highly priced) and hugely exotic because of its mysterious origins. Cinnamon was known in Egypt for over two thousand years where it was used as an embalming oil but no one actually knew where it actually came from. Crusaders brought back tales of cinnamon being fished up in nets at the source of the Nile.
Herodotus recounted the story of giant cinnamon birds collecting the sticks in a far corner of Arabia in orderto construct their nests. People would leave large pieces of ox meat for the birds who would be tempted by them but when they took the meat back to their nests, it would be so heavy that the nests would collapse, scattering the cinnamon sticks which could then be gathered up, or so the story went. The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder discounted this fanciful tale, believing that cinnamon came from Ethiopia, carried on rafts with no oars or sails. What certainly wasn’t in dispute was that cinnamon could be bought in Alexandria which is where the Venetians obtained it and distributed it to the rest of Europe.
In fact the mystery was solved when Portuguese sailors landed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and found the cinnamon tree being cultivated. Cinnamon is actually the bark of the tree which can be harvested in the form of sticks which can then be ground into the household spice we know today. Although cinnamon is grown all over South East Asia, Sri Lankan cinnamon is reckoned to be of the highest quality and so fragrant that a sixteenth century Dutch sea captain reported that when he was downwind of the island one “can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea.”
Today its subtle yet earthy aroma is used to enhance both savoury and sweet dishes. In Arabian cooking, cinnamon is a popular flavour for chicken and lamb dishes. Persian cuisine uses it in soups, drinks, and sweet dishes. Cinnamon is a natural partner of both coffee and chocolate. It’s essential in many Western dessert dishes, such as apple pie, cinnamon toast, and doughnuts. And Easter wouldn’t be Easter without cinnamon flavoured Hot Cross Buns!