Have you ever wondered why cinnamon quills are curled like rolls of ancient paper?
Ceylon cinnamon, that is, the warm, woody spice that, when whole, resembles a single rolled layer of soft brown crumbly bark: This is the “true” cinnamon whose subtle aroma is faintly perfumed with citrus and clove, and whose flavor is both sweet and mildly astringent.
It’s a beautiful spice, one which too few Americans have tasted, given the fact that its more pungent and assertive cousin cassia has stolen its identity, at least in the supermarkets where it’s fobbed off as “cinnamon.”
Mystica V, who lives in Sri Lanka, knows all about true cinnamon. She and her family own a property at Elpitiya in the southern part of the island where the spice is grown and harvested. Elsewhere the family has fields in which “tea, pineapple, mandarin oranges, chillies, vegetables, rubber and a bit of cloves” are cultivated.
Does it sound like a tropical paradise? Maybe—until you hear about the monkeys that raid the corn, the porcupines that tear up young coconut palms and the wild elephant who pays daily visits.
“He just stands at a distance of 300 metres and looks at everything,” Mystica writes. “He comes again in the night and does not deviate from his route, so there’s no point putting up fences…he just breaks the wall and goes through!!!”
Farming is the same everywhere: Hard work and lots of it.
Although cinnamon trees can grow 50 feet tall, they are kept small to allow for easy harvesting. But let Mystica explain in her own words and pictures…
“The shrub grows to a height of around seven feet. It can grow very much taller, but for practical reasons it is kept to this height. When growing, tips are broken to get branches to sprout as many new ones as possible…
“It is the branches that produce your cinnamon. They are cut when the branch is about one and a half inches thick. All the leaves are stripped and you are just left with a wooden stick, as it were.
“This is where the magic begins. The peelers just rub the surface of the bark to smooth it for a few minutes.
Then, using a very sharp knife, an incision is made right along its length from one end to the other. Next the point of the knife is inserted to go around the circumference of the stick. Just imagine shedding the skin of the bark from the stick without breaking it….
“The entire point of the story is that it must emerge whole, as a sort of “Swiss roll” of bark and then you slide out the stick. It sounds easy but believe me it is unimaginably difficult to do without breaking it into bits.
“These cylinders are then put to dry, normally on a string mesh ceiling. The heat of the country is enough to dry them. We do not dry in the sun because it is too harsh. If there is even the slightest bit of damp/stickiness in the bark, the price comes down. The idea is to have dry cinnamon in quills.
“Hundreds of quills are put together and tied in bundles. This is a very picturesque thing. You either see fellows on small motorbikes having a huge bundle of sticks neatly packed like a bale behind them taking them for sale,or the dealer comes to your home to buy which is invariably what we do ourselves.
“The cinnamon peeler’s wages are worked out in a strange way. The owner takes half, the cinnamon peeler takes half. From the price paid to the peeler a sum of Rs 25 is deducted and this is added to the owner’s price and then you work out who gets what.
“Cinnamon peeling is a family job and we right now have four brothers and one brother-in-law working for us. They come and stay with you for the entire duration of the peeling time and go home only after the job is done. We also tend to stay with the same set of peelers for their generation and it is only with a change of owners that sometimes a change of peelers will occur…”
And what of the branches that have been peeled? “The wood left behind is very slow burning. It is also very aromatic. It coats your pans with a sticky heavy black resin!!!!but it is a popular wood for cooking. Never ever use it myself.”
Besides helping run her family’s agricultural properties—last week she had to haul 50-kilogram sacks of fertilizer to the pineapple fields—Mystica is “happily married” with three children and is an enthusiastic quilter. She may also be the most prolific reader I know: Be sure to take a look at the many book reviews on her blog. And don’t forget to try her delicious fish curry if you haven’t already done so.
Do you have a spice story to share? Please send details and photos, if you have them, to me at spicelinesatgmaildotcom. I would love to tell your story as well!