The sidewalk outside Oaxaca’s Chocolate Mayordomo, where you can have cacao ground to your liking, is piled almost haphazardly with bulky burlap bags. One sack, open to the air, brims with plump cacao beans. Another is stuffed with shaggy rolls of bark. Soft and almost crumbly to the touch, the pale brown sticks—or quills—are canela, a.k.a. Mexican cinnamon.
Do you want a little canela—or a lot? How about almonds and sugar? The choice is yours. When the dark chocolate oozes out of the rackety mill, warm, seductively thick and slightly grainy, it’s your own custom blend: rich with nuts, touched with sweetness, imbued with the elusive flavor of a spice that has traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific to a sidewalk in this provincial Mexican capital.
Botanically speaking, canela is cinnamomum zeylanicum, a sweetly fragrant spice favored in Mexico and other parts of the world, but rarely used in America. Of course, you can buy it here, from serious spice merchants such as Penzey’s or Savory Spice Shop where you’ll find it listed as Ceylon, or softstick cinnamon. In the international section of some supermarkets, look for canela, or simply “Mexican cinnamon.”
The big surprise, for most of us, is that this cinnamon doesn’t smell much like America’s favorite spice. Poke your nose into a jar and at first whiff, it may seem pallid, even insipid. But make no mistake: This is the real thing. The other spice, the stronger one we call “cinnamon” isn’t that at all, but a close, powerfully aromatic cousin known as cassia.
Are you confused yet? Chalk it up to our squishy labeling regulations. Under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, all cinnamomum species, including cassia, can be sold as cinnamon. So for decades big spice manufacturers have slapped the name on jars of cassia, a popular, much more pungent spice that also happens to be a lot cheaper. In other countries such as England, where a clear distinction is made between the two, this practice is illegal.
“True” cinnamon is an unsung spice that should be better known. To help, here are a few simple facts.
Botanical lore: True cinnamon, or cinnamomum zeylanicum, is a member of the huge Lauraceae family of tropical and subtropical plants. The clan includes bay laurel, avocado and sassafras—and, yes, cassia, the other “cinnamon.”
The source: True cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, the tear-drop shaped island off the southern tip of India formerly known as Ceylon—and before that, as Serendib. Centuries ago, sailors knew they were nearing Serendib when the fragrance of the spice wafted over their ships. As a Dutch sea captain wrote in his log, “The shores of the island are full of it, and it is the best in all the Orient: when one is downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea.”
Although it grows in other countries, the finest true cinnamon still comes from the “silver sand” of the coastal Negombo region north of Columbo, Sri Lanka’s capital. It’s called Ceylon cinnamon after the island’s name under British rule.
Serendib, incidentally, is the root of the word “serendipity,” invented by Horace Walpole to mean “the faculty of making happy discoveries by accident.”
What It Looks Like: True cinnamon is light reddish-brown in color. The whole spice is sold in rolled sticks, or quills, made of many individual pieces of soft bark rolled into concentric layers. When you break it, the bark crumbles easily and it can be ground to a fine powder in a spice mill at home.
How It is Harvested: In The Herb and Spice Bible, Ian Hemphill compares the harvesting of Sri Lankan cinnamon to “a magic show where the hand appears to be quicker than the eye.” It is a complicated process which involves peeling fragile layers of inner bark from young cinnamon shoots, letting them cure in the sun for an hour, and then “telescoping one paper-thin 12-inch length into [another] until a 3-foot quill is formed.” The cinnamon must be dried in the shade to prevent breakage, so the quills are “suspended like a fragrant false ceiling” in the farmer’s house until they are ready to go to market.
How It Smells and Tastes: The aroma of true cinnamon is elusive: sweet, warm and woody, with whispers of clove and lemon. Nibble the bark and the spice’s mild astringency will pucker your mouth. Waves of warmth, sweetness and subtle cinnamon wash over the palate. At end there is a little bite, a fleeting pungency.
Chemically, the distinctive smell and taste of cinnamon derives from cinnemaldehyde, released as an oily liquid when the bark is crushed. According to Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages, true cinnamon contains 65 to 75 percent cinnemaldehyde, which puts it at the mellow end of the scale. In On Food and Cooking, Harold Magee notes that the flavor profile of true cinnamon also includes compounds such as eugenol (clove), cineole (eucalyptus) and linalool (lily of the valley), all of which contribute to its complex flavor and aroma.
How to Use It: Powdered Ceylon cinnamon is ideal for flavoring delicate pastries which might be overwhelmed by the stronger taste of cassia. Or use whole sticks to infuse subtle flavor into soups, stews and cooked fruit. Apples baked with true cinnamon, maple sugar and walnuts, for instance, have a mellower, fruitier taste than those cooked with cassia.
In Mexico, the world’s largest importer of true cinnamon, one small stick can have an almost alchemical effect on whatever is simmering in the pot. It is an essential ingredient of Mexican chocolate; it is also used in coffee and to make a warming tea. In the thick, rich moles of Oaxaca and Puebla, cinnamon’s sweetness tempers the heat of fiery chiles and melds the other ingredients—nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and spices—into a luscious whole. As Susana Trilling, a Oaxaca cookbook author and cooking teacher, observes, “Cinnamon adds a subtle sweetness, roundness or what I call ‘bass’ tones to the harmony of flavors that are characteristic of Oaxacan moles. Often it is one of a trio of spices that include allspice and clove. In a mole, no single spice should ever predominate.”
A word of warning: True cinnamon balances, but never overwhelms—unless you add too much. Used judiciously, it will work behind the scenes to harmonize disparate flavors—but cross the line and its natural astringency can become harsh or bitter-tasting.
As in all things, moderation…
For more on cinnamon, see SpiceLines Newsletter.