Learning about Spices
What is a spice?
Why were spices important?
Sources of spices
Perfumes and Incenses
Use of spices as aphrodisiacs
Use of spices as medicines
A spice timeline
Table of Spices
Frankincense and Myrrh
Nutmeg and Mace
Contacts and Acknowledgments
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|Genus Species||Cinnamomum zeylanicum
|Origin|| Ceylon, Western India (Malabar Coast)|
|Cultivated|| Sri Lanka, East and West Indies, Mauritius, Reúnion, southern India, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam|
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|Description|| Cinnamon is usually regarded as the bark of the Cinnamomum zeylanicum tree; it is known as canela in Portugal and Spain, cannelle in France, and Zimt in Germany. In India and Iran, it is called darchini, meaning “wood from China”, which more accurately describes cassia. The original name came from the Malay word, “kayumanis”, meaning sweet wood. The Hebrew equivalent was “qinnämön”, and this is the source of the word cinnamon. The word canella was used by the Italians to describe as “little cannon tubes” that the rolled up quills of bark resembled. The cinnamon (or cassia) trade was controlled by Venice in the 13th and 14th centuries, and resulted in the city becoming very wealthy.|
The Egyptians used cinnamon and cassia along with myrrh in embalming, perhaps because cinnamic acid (and also myrrh) has antibacterial effects. The Hebrews, and others, used cinnamon and cassia in religious ceremonies, while in Mexico, Asiatic countries, Arabia and North Africa it was valued in cooking. The Roman empire imported huge amounts of cinnamon, and it may have been used mostly in perfumes and fragrances and to flavor wines, but it was not favored as a cooking spice. In the Middle Ages and subsequently, cinnamon, was imported from Egypt, having been brought there by Arabian traders who obtained it in Ceylon. It became a favorite flavor in many banquet foods and was regarded as an appetite stimulator, a digestive, an aphrodisiac, and a treatment for coughs and sore throats. Currently, in America cinnamon is mainly used to flavor desserts and condiment, while powder and quills (which may be cassia) are fashionable components of expensive drinks of coffee. True cinnamon is very popular in Mexican cooking and in coffee and tea.
It is probable that Egyptian cinnamon in Pharaonic times was mainly cassia, much of which came from China where large groves of trees grew around the city of Kweilin (now called Guilin): “kwei” means cinnamon, and “lin” means forest. The true cinnamon of Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) was “discovered” by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, who thenceforth controlled the trade with great cruelty. An increasing demand for cinnamon led to the Dutch fighting the Portuguese, and in the mid-17th century Ceylon’s cinnamon trade was taken over and controlled by Holland. In the 18th century, many Dutch were massacred in Sri Lanka in an effort to break the cruel rule of the new colonialists, but this led to reprisals and a subsequent growth in Portuguese control of the island’s cinnamon plantations. The Dutch forcefully monopolized cinnamon; to keep up prices in 1760, they burnt huge amounts in Amsterdam to create a shortage. Perhaps this hostile act convinced cinnamon fanciers in other countries that the spice was being over-utilized in gourmet cooking.
Nevertheless, in 1795, the English seized control of Ceylon hoping to revive interest in cinnamon. Before long, however, cinnamon saplings were transplanted by the Dutch for cultivation in Indonesia and by the French to plantations in Mauritius, Reunion and Guyana. The importance of cinnamon from Ceylon continued to gradually decline as this spice became less fashionable in cooking and in wine making. It is of interest that cinnamon now grows in Egypt, where in the 19th century, it was introduced by the French who planted saplings that had been grown in the Jardin des Plantes of Paris. However, after that time the importance of cinnamon in French cooking waned, whereas it still persists in traditional recipes of French Canada.
Currently, cinnamon is regarded as a wonderful aroma in baked goods, but its taste is of limited appeal. Similarly, it is not greatly favored as a medication or as a food preserver or as an incense. In view of its huge popularity and the enormous struggles involved in its trade over the past millennium, this ancient spice undoubtedly merits greater appreciation today. See a list of spices by Taste and Hotness.
|Useful Parts|| The spice in the case of both cinnamon and cassia come from bark of the plants.|
|Medicinal Properties||Cinnamon and cassia extracts have been used medically to treat gastrointestinal problems and as a specific for diarrhea, but their value is marginal. Their use as antimicrobials is of limited relevance, and is dubious of the presence of cinnamon or cassia in cooked foods retards spoilage if left unrefrigerated in a tropical climate. Nevertheless, cinnamon along with many other spices has antibacterial properties that may be worth exploiting.|
See chemicals in spices.
|Historical View|| “Cinnamon bark has generally the properties of the spices, being aromatic, carminative, and stimulant. It is also somewhat astringent. It is rarely prescribed alone, but chiefly as an addition to tother medicines, to improve their flavour or to check their griping qualities. As a cordial, stimulant, and tonic, it is indicated in all cases characterized by feebleness and atony. As an astringent it is employed in diarrhea, usually in combination with chalk, the vegetable infusions, or opium.”|
Bentley, Robert and Henry Trimen. Medicinal Plants; being descriptions with original figures of the principal plants employed in medicine and an account of the characters, properties, and uses of their parts and products of medicinal value. London, Churchill, 1880. (WZ 295 B556m 1880)
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