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Cassia – The Aromatic Botanical Guarded By Winged Serpents

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Beautiful Botanicals by Joanne Howdle

You may be surprised to learn that the botanical most often labelled commercially as cinnamon is not ‘true cinnamon’ (Cinnamomum verum), but cassia (Cinnamomum cassia).

Commonly known as ‘Chinese cassia’ or ‘Chinese cinnamon’, cassia is obtained from the aromatic bark of a genus of small evergreen tree belonging to the Lauraceae family. The spice, which grows to 10–15 metres, originates in Southern China, and is widely cultivated in South and South-East Asia.

Cassia's greyish coloured bark is coarser and thicker with a more intense aroma than that of cinnamon.

When cinnamon is laid in the sun to dry, its quills are tan coloured and telescopic in form, whilst the quills of cassia are more of a reddish-brown colour and curl inwards from both sides, appearing like a scroll.

One of the first written references to cassia is found in a lyric poem by Sappho (circa 630/615 BC – 570/550 BC), who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos and is admired for the beauty of her writing style. According to the Ancient Greek writer Herodotus (circa 485/484 BC – 425/413 BC), both Cinnamomum cassia and Cinnamomum verum were believed to grow in Arabia, where they were guarded by winged serpents.

Naturalis Historia – The Natural History written by Gaius Plinius Secundus (circa 23/24 AD – 79 AD), often known as Pliny the Elder, gives a fascinating account of the early spice trade across the Red Sea. Pliny states that cassia arrived in Rome on ‘rafts without sails or oars’, obviously using the trade winds, and a libra – a Roman pound of cassia, cost up to 300 denars – an agricultural labourer earned 25 denars per day! The Bible states that cassia was used in the preparation of an anointing oil used by Moses. Whilst the Ancient Egyptians used the essential oils derived from the bark and leaves of both cassia and true cinnamon to embalm their dead.

In traditional Chinese and Ayurveda medicine, cassia is thought to offer a range of health benefits. The botanical is valued for its ability to kill bacteria, fungi and viruses and is used to treat a wide range of conditions, including athlete’s foot; blurred vision; cancer; constipation; diabetes; erectile dysfunction, kidney disorders, menstrual problems along with nausea and vomiting. It is rich in antioxidants and so is beneficial for the skin keeping it moisturised. It is also often used to treat acne, heal scars and in the manufacture of facemasks and scrubs.

According to Roman gourmet, Gaius Gavius Apicius, cassia was amongst the spices that any good kitchen should contain. It is frequently used today as a flavouring in desserts, pastries, and confectionary such as boiled sweets and chewing gum. Dried cassia buds resembling cloves are utilised in Indian cuisine as a spice in curries, pickles, and meat dishes. The Ancient Greeks and Romans used cassia to flavour their wine. Today, cassia and true cinnamon are often utilised together in gin manufacture.

However, there are differences between the two botanicals. Cassia is less subtle and elegant than cinnamon and is used to add a warming spice and a complexity of flavour to gin. It is added by some distilleries to the base spirit in whisky and rum manufacture to give these spirits additional flavour. It is typically used in distilling in its chipped form, although some distilleries use larger pieces of bark or powdered cassia in the manufacture of their spirits.

  • Joanne Howdle is tour and events co-ordinator at the multi-award-winning Dunnet Bay Distillers Ltd.

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