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Cinnamon had a long history before its baking heyday

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Beautiful Botanicals by Joanne Howdle


Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), also known as ‘true cinnamon’, is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several species of Cinnamomum, a genus of small evergreen aromatic trees belonging to the Lauraceae family.

The bark of Cinnamomum verum is peeled and laid in the sun to dry, where it curls up into dried quills known as cinnamon sticks.

Cinnamon thrives in tropical regions such as the islands of Madagascar and the Seychelles and is native to Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, hence one of the common names for the botanical which is Ceylon cinnamon.

According to Dutch traders there was so much cinnamon growing in Sri Lanka in the 17th century that the botanical could be smelled over 20 miles out to sea when ships were downwind of the island.

The natural historian Gaius Plinius Secundus (23/24AD-79AD), often known as Pliny the Elder, states that cinnamon was incredibly expensive in Ancient Rome. Pliny wrote that a libra – a Roman pound – of cinnamon sold for the equivalent of the wages the average Roman labourer earned in four years.

However, the cost of cinnamon did not deter the fifth Roman emperor, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (December 15, 37AD-June 9, 68AD) – whose infamous reign is usually associated with debauchery, extravagance, and tyranny – from burning Rome’s entire supply of cinnamon on his wife’s funeral pyre.

The Ancient Egyptians used the essential oils derived from the bark and leaves of cinnamon to embalm their dead. They believed that preserving the body of a deceased person in a life-like state would allow their soul to exist for eternity. Therefore, a method of artificial preservation called mummification was developed.

Mummification was a complicated and lengthy process which lasted up to 70 days. Cinnamon oil was used by the Ancient Egyptians in the mummification process for its antifungal, antiviral, bactericidal and larvicidal properties.

The essential oils of cinnamon were extracted by pummelling the bark and leaves of the botanical, macerating them in saltwater and then distilling the resulting mixture. The botanical was also burned as incense by the Ancient Egyptians and both sexes wore perfumes made from cinnamon and myrrh.

The domestication of the camel around 5000 years ago helped the Ancient Egyptians to grow and solidify trade routes throughout the Middle East, which ensured they received a steady supply of cinnamon.

The oils derived from the bark and leaves of cinnamon were widely used in the Ancient World in the treatment and prevention of oral diseases such as dental caries. The botanical is still used for this purpose today. In traditional medicine, cinnamon is considered a remedy for digestive, gynaecological and respiratory ailments.

Once traded as currency, cinnamon has a pleasant flavour and warm smell that has made it a popular ingredient worldwide, particularly in baked goods, beverages and curries.

True cinnamon is not to be confused with another botanical used in gin manufacture, the cheaper cassia bark (Cinnamomum cassia), although cassia is often sold as ‘cinnamon’, especially in the United States of America.

The flavour of cinnamon is more subtle and elegant than that of cassia and is somewhat drier and woodier. Cinnamon is also significantly more expensive than cassia.

In gin production, cinnamon is used to add a warming, earthy spiciness to the spirit. In addition to its use as a gin botanical, cinnamon is used as a spice in the manufacture of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky Liqueur, and vodka.

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

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