You open the door to Grandma’s house, and a sweet, spicy smell tingles your nose. Could it be apple pie? Oatmeal cookies? What is that delightful smell that tempts your taste buds and makes your mouth water?
Cinnamon is a widely used spice. It is produced in three basic forms: sticks, oil, and powder. Cinnamon sticks are mainly used for flavoring hot drinks and for making pickles. Aromatic cinnamon oil gives candles and perfumes a pleasant scent. Powdered cinnamon is used mainly in cooking.
Open a container of cinnamon and take a deep breath. Ah-h-h-h! A warm, slightly sweet odor greets you. Touch a bit of light brown powder to your tongue. M-m-m-m, a sweet-pungent taste. You wouldn’t want to eat cinnamon by itself, of course. It is meant to be mixed into certain foods to enhance their flavor.
Cinnamon has been important for a long time. It was once considered even more valuable than gold. Egyptian kings offered cinnamon to their gods. Explorers went on long, dangerous journeys to find it. In the Middle Ages, when no one knew about refrigeration, cooks sprinkled cinnamon on meats and vegetables to cover up the odor and taste of decay.
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree and also from the cassia plant. The trees grow mainly in Sri Lanka, Brazil, India, Madagascar, Jamaica, Java, and Martinique. Much of the cinnamon that comes from the cassia plant is grown in Vietnam on the South China Sea.
If you were to go to India to help harvest cinnamon, you might have the following experience.
You awaken early to a cool, gray dawn. A light, misty rain is falling. After dressing in a loose shirt and pants, you eat a delicious breakfast of hot oatmeal topped with sugar and cinnamon. Then you rush to join the tree cutters sauntering down the well-worn path to the cinnamon groves. Nobody minds the gentle rain dampening their hair and dripping from their faces, because it is good weather for harvesting.
The height of the cinnamon trees surprises you. They look more like overgrown bushes than trees. Some have tiny, pale-yellow flowers peeking between the shiny, oval-shaped leaves.
Tender young branches, called shoots, fall quickly as the tree cutters chop them close to the ground. The long, sharp knives sound out a snappy rhythm—zing-whish, zing-whish—and the air around you is filled with a distinctive cinnamon aroma as other workers clip small twigs and leaves from the fallen shoots. Cinnamon oil will be distilled from these trimmings.
Gathering several stripped branches, you carry them to a nearby clearing, known as the peeling area. Here, in assembly-line fashion, workers scrape the shoots back and forth with a dull, carved knife, then rub them with a small brass rod that helps loosen the bark already softened by the rain. After the bark is slit end-to-end, it is pried loose and peeled off.
Several workers stack and roll two or more peels together. Smaller pieces of bark are stuffed inside to help keep a cylindrical shape. These rolls are called quills. The quills are about as long as your arm and as big around as your little finger.
When the rain clouds fade away, it is drying time. Placed side by side on long wooden boards, the quills soak up the bright, hot sunshine.
Dried broken quills are ground into fine powder and stored in large containers. Undamaged quills are packed into bundles. The bundles and containers, plus bottles of cinnamon oil, are loaded onto large ships so that they can be transported to countries where cinnamon spice is not produced.
Standing on the deck of a freighter bound for your country, you wave good-bye to your friends in India. As the ship’s whistle blasts a final farewell and heads toward open waters, you dream of the sweet cinnamon treats you can make for your family when you arrive home.
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
8 tablespoons sugar
Mix the cinnamon with the sugar.
Pour the mixture into a clean salt or spice shaker.
Sprinkle on sliced apples or bananas, ice cream, hot buttered toast or biscuits, hot or cold cereal, mashed sweet potatoes, pudding, hot chocolate, or whatever you like!