During the mid-1800s, passengers on the promenade decks of steamers approaching the coast of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) would catch a subtle hint of cinnamon on the breeze. As cinnamon is odourless until peeled and cured, the scent was something of a mystery… till it was found that ships’ pursers would nail a couple of strips of cinnamon bark to the foremast the night before the expected landfall, to give eager tourists their money’s worth!
Cinnamon is the quintessential Sri Lankan spice. It was heavily traded in ancient times, in demand everywhere from Egypt to Rome to China, but the secret of its origin was jealously guarded. Arab spice-merchants fobbed curious Europeans off with tall tales; when the truth finally became known, it sparked a competition among the maritime powers of Europe for ownership of the island of Ceylon. First the Portuguese had it; then the Dutch and finally, until 1948, the British.
Though cinnamon grows in other places now, the Sri Lankan variety is still acknowledged to be superior. Its versatility and rich ambiguity of flavour – savoury or sweet? heavy or light? – is unmatched by other varieties. It is used by North American cooks in cinnamon rolls, doughnuts and apple pie, but south of the border it becomes a common ingredient in savoury dishes as well as in coffee and chocolate. Old World cooks use it in everything from festive mince pies to fiery curries.
Cinnamon is high in cancer-preventing antioxidants, helps cure upset stomachs, colds and morning sickness and has antimicrobial properties that make it useful as a food preservative. Never confuse cinnamon with cassia, an altogether coarser and less versatile though similar flavoured spice, which is often sold as cinnamon in the United States.Though it, too, is said to have health benefits, excessive consumption of cassia (not cinnamon) is discouraged by European health authorities.