The difference between fresh cinnamon and the ho-hum stuff is remarkable.
I’ve just been eating the most delicious Djej Mathisa Mesla, Moroccan chicken simmered in sweet tomato jam, from a recipe by Claudia Roden, that was flavored with gorgeous Ceylon cinnamon sent by a UK firm called Cinnamon Hill.
After all these years of seeking the finest spices, I am humbled. (Un grand merci to Carol of Paris Breakfast, who raved about it in one post and put me in touch with the owner.) A plus: one of the loveliest graters I’ve ever laid eyes on, just for cinnamon.
With the grater came two boxes of whole cinnamon to try: One variety, known as Ceylon or “true” cinnamon, comes from the peeled bark of Cinnamomum verum, a bushy plant grown on the island of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. The other, Saigon cinnamon, is the bark of Cinnamomum aromaticum, a close cousin also known as cassia; this intensely flavorful variety is cultivated in Vietnam.
The pale, slender sticks of Ceylon cinnamon, also known as quills, are composed of rolled layers of thin, papery bark; when dried, the bark curls inward, and ends take on the shape of a heart.
This “true” cinnamon has a deliciously warm, woody flavor that is sweet to the taste, with an elusive trace of citrus—possibly a touch of lemon zest. To get the full impact, nibble the end of a quill: The flavor begins on a mellow note, then builds, becoming both hotter and sweeter before slowly fading away. Near the end, a slight astringency kicks in, providing a lively finish that keeps the spice’s sweetness from cloying the palate.
According to Rupert Beeley, founder of Cinnamon Hill, the finest “true” cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka—hence the name, Ceylon cinnamon. Mr. Beeley, by the way, is a stickler for accuracy: In an email he informed me that a Dutch sea captain’s log entry which I’ve always adored, and quoted often, is flat wrong: When downwind of the island, you cannot smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea.
“It’s just not true,” he wrote. Well, Mr. Beeley should know. He and his wife Charlotta have been restoring a cinnamon plantation near Weligama on the southern tip of Sri Lanka over the last few years. “You could stand in the middle of our plantation and you wouldn’t smell cinnamon,” he said. “It’s only the inside of the bark that smells.”
As Mr. Beeley notes, the best “true” cinnamon—and this is what he sells—is harvested from pruned 6-foot tall bushes that grow in the south around the town of Matara, “in the rich red soil of the steep slopes of the hills running down to the hot coastline.” “However, it’s not like wine,” he added. “Unlike a good vineyard in Bordeaux which will produce lots of fine wine, only about 5% max of a cinnamon harvest anywhere is of top quality. It all depends on the fineness of the branch and the bark (which is partly fortuitous) and the peeling. Timing is also important.”
One reason Ceylon cinnamon bark is so thin is that it comes from branches less than one inch thick, said Mr. Beeley.
The harvest, incidentally, occurs roughly twice every 18 months, after the monsoon rains when the bark is “moist and easy to peel.” The timing is somewhat unpredictable: “It is generally possible to harvest cinnamon somewhere on the SW coast, sometime between March and November.” (To see Mystica’s snaps of her family’s cinnamon harvest in Sri Lanka, go here.)
Cassia complicates the cinnamon story. That is to say, what we call “cinnamon” here in the US is usually a close cousin, cassia, which has a much bolder, less nuanced cinnamon flavor than the Sri Lankan variety. Because it is harvested from 20-foot tall trees, its bark is also thicker than that of “true” cinnamon; when dried, both ends of a single piece of bark may curl inward to form a heart-shaped scroll.
Although cassia is widely grown in Indonesia and China, Mr. Beeley only sells Saigon “cinnamon”—which is, again, actually cassia—grown in Vietnam. As he explains on his website, Vietnamese cassia is both fresher and more flavorful than Indonesian “Korintje” which lacks “the depth and spicy bite” of the Saigon variety, or the Chinese product which is often stale by the time it comes to market.
So what’s in a name? Not much, it seems. Mr. Beeley was at pains to explain that the best Saigon cinnamon actually comes from the Yen Bai region in the northwest where the harvest is more predictable, usually around May/June and again sometimes in October, depending on the monsoons and the demand. “Note that although it is called Saigon cinnamon, Vietnamese cinnamon doesn’t come anywhere from anywhere near Saigon (which is now called Ho Chi Minh City).”
The nibble test of his Saigon cinnamon was astonishing. It is the most incendiary cinnamon I have ever tasted—it almost scorched my tongue and after I swallowed, I could feel a little ball of fire sliding down my gullet. Luckily, this cassia is also very sweet and has a powerful, classic cinnamon taste—both characteristics balance the intense heat.
If you are making a soup, stew or curry, you’ll probably want to use whole cinnamon sticks for flavor—whether “true” cinnamon or cassia, and how much of it, is up to you. Here are five recipes on Spicelines to get you started:
Of course, many other recipes call for ground cinnamon. I do hope you’re not thinking that you’ll just pick up some of the powdered stuff in the supermarket. It’s rarely fresh since the flavor begins to fade almost as soon as it is ground and bottled.
Instead, you might want to discover the pleasures of grating your own cinnamon. You may already have a microplane in your utensil drawer, but Cinnamon Hill’s hand grater is lot more appealing. (Besides, fresh cinnamon can’t be grated on a microplane.) The handle is made of solid European crown-cut oak, while the laser-etched stainless steel blade has tiny grating nubs prettily laid out in a sunburst pattern.
For a spoonful of finely ground cinnamon, firmly rub the end of a stick against the grater. The perfume is intoxicating, while the intensity of the flavor is likely to be a revelation–two compelling reasons to grate your own.
The grater is sold with a white ceramic cup, so you can grind your cinnamon very neatly if you like. The cup can go in the dishwasher, but the grater should never be immersed in water. Cinnamon Hill recommends wiping the handle with a soft cloth and cleaning the blade with a bristle brush, though I notice that a dry paper towel lightly brushed over the blade is also effective.
One word of warning: The grater can only be used with very fresh cinnamon because the older sticks tend to splinter. So the Cinnamon Hill grater package includes two boxes of its excellent cinnamon as well for $70.
Here are five recipes from SpiceLines that use ground or grated cinnamon:
And you’ll find many more ways to use cinnamon on the Cinnamon Hill website.