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It’s The Holiday Season – Time For A Real Spicy Tale

by Mike Keeler

One day long ago on an island off the coast of India, someone noticed that when they cut down a certain type of tree, it refused to die. It grew little shoots right out of the stump and kept right on growing. Folks also soon realized that, before these little shoots became too mature, they could cut one off of the stump, peel off its hard outer bark, soften the inner bark in seawater, pound it thin, and let it dry. Abracadabra! It curled up into a long, flaky stick which smelled great and tasted even better.

They called it kurundu; they sold it to their neighbors in India, where it was called “karuvapatta”; they in turn traded it to the Persians, who called it “dar-chin”; from there, Arab boats carried it up the Red Sea to Egypt, where it was known by its Greek name, “kinnamomom.” To the Romans, it was “cinnamon.”

In the ancient world, it was rare and highly prized. The Greeks brought offerings of cinnamon to the Temple of Apollo. It is referenced often in the Old Testament as a kingly gift. The Roman emperor Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon at the funeral of his wife.

By the Middle Ages, it was a common spice in Europe, and demand kept growing. In the 1500’s, the Portuguese, looking for a trade route to the East, sailed around Africa. When they arrived on the island of Ceylon, they found the locals cutting little sprouts off of tree stumps and making cinnamon. Eureka! They had found cinnamon’s source, and they soon monopolized it. The Dutch supplanted the Portuguese in 1638, and controlled the cinnamon trade for 150 years.

In 1796, the British got into the cinnamon business. They established cinnamon estates in India, China and Indonesia. Unfortunately, the cinnamon tree is not native to these areas, so the British settled for its more hardy cousin, the cassia, which has tougher bark and produces a harsher, less pleasant spice. But it was a pretty good facsimile, and it soon became the global standard.

That’s why today, when you buy cinnamon in your grocery story, you’re not actually buying cinnamon, you’re buying cassia. It’s less tasty than “true cinnamon.” Cassia lacks many of cinnamon’s anti-oxidant and anti-viral properties. Even worse, cassia has recently been shown to cause liver damage when consumed in high quantities.

So now you’re thinking your holiday eggnog deserves a dash of real cinnamon. True enough, but how to get it, short of travelling all the way to Ceylon? Well, you’re luck, because the spice trade has gone digital. Shazam! You can order real cinnamon online.


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