"Cinnamon Varieties" by David Dendy (Francesco Sirene).
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
Date: Thu, 16 Dec 1999 23:56:32 -0800
From: "David Dendy" <ddendy at silk.net>
Subject: SC - Cinnamon varieties (long)
by Francesco Sirene
There are a wide variety of types of cinnamon that have been used. In
present international trade, there are three main varieties available. 1]
Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) 2] Indonesian cinnamon/cassia
(Cinnamomum burmanii, usually) and 3] Chinese cassia (Cinnamomum cassia). If
you live in the United States or Canada, what you will find in your stores
as "Cinnamon" is the Indonesian variety; in most of the world the word
"cinnamon" today is reserved for Ceylon cinnamon, and the other varieties
are called "cassia" (and are sold separately). In China the indigenous
variety is used, but is unlikely to be called cinnamon -- rather it is known
under the Chinese name of "kwei".
Ceylon cinnamon is a pale tan colour, and comes in rolled quills made up of
many paper-thin layers of the bark rolled up in one another. It is quite
fragile, cinnamon-y but quite sweet. My experience is that many of my
customers like to eat it straight.
Indonesian cinnamon/cassia is more of a red-brown colour. It also comes in
quills, but each quill is a single roll of a bark the thickness of heavy
cardboard. The cinnamon-y flavour is stronger and almost pungent, and the
wood is harder.
Chinese cassia is usually quite dark brown. It normally comes not in rolled
quills but rather as irregular pieces of thick bark, some of which may be
partially curved and others flat. It has a very strong cinnamon-y flavour,
but little sweetness.
Which of these would you use in your recipe? Aha -- here is where the
historical argumentation comes in. At this time, I won't go into the issue
of whether the materials the Ancient Egyptians imported from Punt were
actually cinnamon, nor the issue of where the cinnamon and cassia the Greeks
and Romans imported via the Red Sea came from. These highly-contentious
issues are not actually relevant to the subject of the Cooks' List, since
the earliest reference to cinnamon or cassia being used in European cookery
do not come until the eighth century (the monks of St. Gall put it in fish
dishes). Before that time in Europe cinnamon and cassia were used only in
medicine and perfumery.
The name met with in European recipes is usually "cannell" or some
variation, based on description of the sticks (cannell - channel - canal . .
. all convey the idea of the grooved shape of the bark). Sometimes
"synamone" or some variant form carries over the idea of a superior variety,
as that was used by the Romans to distinguish the best.
In Arabic sources the confusion can catch up with you. "Darchini" is the
term most often used, for the more desired variety. The name is usually
taken to mean "wood of China" (thus, for example, in various translations of
Arabic cookbooks where the translators put "Chinese cinnamon" for this
word). However, the word was borrowed by the Arabs from Persian or India,
and probably the "chini" means "sweet" rather than "Chinese", so the actual
meaning would be "sweet-wood" (so the origin is less definite). The other
word commonly used, for a less expensive variety, was "kirfah", meaning
"bark". (A third term, "salikeh", denoted a clove-flavoured bark).
And what was the actual variety used in period? Almost certainly the usual
cinnamon available to users in early medieval Europe and the Middle East was
various sorts coming from north and western India, particularly Cinnamomum
tamala (tej) and Cinnamomum iners, neither of which are offered in
international trade today. There is no evidence to suggest Indonesian
cinnamon was coming west at that time, and the common assumption that
Chinese cassia was the "darchini" of the Arabs is also highly unlikely,
since the extensive Chinese records give not the slightest hint of a
westward export of kwei in this era. The various grades of cannell/synamon
and kirfah/darchini would be simply an empirical assessment of the pungency,
sweetness, and palatability (both Cinnamomum tamala and Cinnamomum iners are
extremely variable in flavour, depending on where and in what conditions
they grow). [Probably, in practical terms, at least until I line up a
supplier in India to get the two obscure varieties, your best substitute in
terms of flavour would be Indonesian cinnamon/cassia.]
All this changed in the late thirteenth century, when Ceylon first began to
export its variety of cinnamon (there is quite a story to why Ceylon
cinnamon only began to be exported at this time, involving the kings of
Ceylon needing to find a use for the tribute labour of a group of immigrants
who had been granted land, but I won't go into it here -- ask me if you want
the details). This new cinnamon from Ceylon was so much more desirable in
flavour that it quickly took over the darchini/synamon name used for the
"best" quality. This Ceylon cinnamon quickly became the desired variety, at
a cost several times that of ordinary cinnamon from India (so much so that
an English recipe for hypocras says to use synamome for lords, but that
cannell is good enough for commoners). So for recipes after the thirteenth
century, Ceylon cinnamon would be the choice of cooks if they could afford
it. [Crass commercial plug -- if you don't have a handy local source of
Ceylon cinnamon, you can buy it from us -- see our website URL in the
Moving out of period, but still interesting, is the explanation for why the
usual North American spice is cassia, while Europe and most of the world
uses Ceylon cinnamon. This is a result of the American Revolution. The
newly-independent Americans quickly started their own trading ventures to
Asia in search of spices, but they could not get access to Indian and
Ceylonese supplies because India and Ceylon were in British hands (and the
British didn't allow foreign traders). Instead the Americans got their
pepper and other spices in the Indonesian islands, which were under rather
looser Dutch control -- and the cinnamon available there was the Indonesian
cinnamon/cassia variety. (The Americans also purchased some Chinese cassia.)
David Dendy / ddendy at silk.net
partner in Francesco Sirene, Spicer / sirene at silk.net
Visit our Website at http://www.silk.net/sirene/