Wednesday, October 25, 2017

On the Use of Cinnamon

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia or Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is a powerful spice that comes from the bark of the Cinnamomum tree has been used medicinally around the world for thousands of years. It is still used daily in many cultures because of widespread belief in its health benefits, not to mention its distinctive flavor.  It has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunity-boosting properties that make it beneficial in treating symptoms of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and neuro-degenerative diseases.  Studies have shown that cinnamon reduces several cholesterol, triglycerides, and high blood pressure.

The use of cinnamon dates back as far as 4,000 years ago to Ancient Egypt where it was considered a very valuable and rare spice and given to royalty as a sign of devotion.  There are approximately 250 species of cinnamon have been identified because the cinnamon tree is grown all over the world.  The two main types in use today are the same as those used by the ancients: Ceylon cinnamon, sometimes called true cinnamon, and Cassia cinnamon, sometimes called Chinese or Saigon cinnamon.  Ceylon cinnamon is believed to be more effective medicinally, but Cassia cinnamon is less expensive and more widely available. Ceylon cinnamon is grown in Sri Lanka and Thailand, and Cassia cinnamon comes primarily from trees grown in China.

An inscription on an ancient Greek temple on the western coast of Anatolia records the offering of an expensive gift of cinnamon and cassia dedicated to the god Apollo.  In order to monopolize the lucrative trade in cinnamon suppliers guarded the secret of the location of the trees.  The first Greek reference to cassia is in a poem by Sappho written in the seventh century BCE. According to Herodotus cinnamon, cassia, myrrh and labdanum grew in Arabia, and were guarded by winged serpents.  Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon in the embalming and mummification of royalty. 

Pliny the Elder mentioned using it to flavor a mulled wine.  According to him a Roman pound (11.5 oz.) of cassia cinnamon costed 300 denarii, the equivalent of ten months' wages. It was too expensive to be commonly used on funeral pyres in Rome, but the Emperor Nero is said to have burned a year's worth of the city's supply at the funeral for his wife Poppaea Sabina in 65 CE. 

Cinnamon is frequently blended with other spices in the Bible.  In Exodus 30:23 it is mentioned along with myrrh and calamus; in Proverbs 7:17 it is combined with myrrh and aloes; and in the Song of Solomon 4:14 it occurs with nard, saffron and calamus.  Revelation 18:13 lists cinnamon among the most precious commodities: myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, flour, wheat; cattle and sheep; horses; carriages and human slaves. 

The source of cinnamon traded in Europe remained shrouded in mystery throughout the Middle Ages.  We now know that Indonesian rafts transported it from the Moluccas to East Africa where local traders then carried it north to Alexandria in Egypt.  From there merchants from Venice, Italy controlled the distribution of cinnamon throughout Europe.  Disruption of this trade during the rise of the Ottoman Empire, led Europeans to search for other routes to Asia.

Dutch traders established a trading post in Sri Lanka in 1638 and the Dutch East India Company took control of manufacturing cinnamon monopolizing its production until 1767 when the British East India Company established a Cinnamon Estate on the Malabar Coast of southern India and took control of the distribution of Ceylon cinnamon from the Dutch in 1796.

Today cinnamon bark is used as a condiment and a flavoring spice in the preparation of chocolate, especially in Mexico.  In East India, Persia and Turkey it is used in sweet dishes as well as savory dishes of chicken and lamb. In the United States it is combined to flavor cereals, bread and apple dishes.  Ground cinnamon bark is composed of around 11% water, 81% carbohydrates, 4% protein and 1% fat.  It is a rich source of vitamin K, calcium and iron and moderate amounts of vitamin B6, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc.