As you sprinkle ground cinnamon into your favorite holiday desserts, give thanks that you’re living now and not a couple thousand years ago when Rome’s Pliny the Elder wrote this spice was worth 15 times that of silver.
The word “cinnamon” describes the two main commercial types, both the “real” spice Cinnamomum zeylanicum, native strictly to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and to its close cousin, C. cassia, commonly known as cassia or Chinese cinnamon, from Southeast Asia. (In the U.S., most cinnamon sold is cassia).
The spice itself comes from the inner bark of a tropical tree, and Chinese writings mention this member of the Lauraceae family and its supposed medicinal benefits as far back as 2700 BC.
Although the Ancient Greeks knew about cinnamon’s two broad culinary varieties, they had no idea where this almost unobtainable spice came from. Their ignorance was the result of ruses from the Middle Eastern traders who monopolized the era’s spice market.
To keep the value of cinnamon high, one concocted story was about a fearsome bird called the “cinnamologus” which used cinnamon branches from who-knew-where to build nests on sheer cliffs. Harvesting the spice required butchering cattle on the ground beneath. Hungry birds supposedly snatched up the irresistible and heavy carcasses and flew them up to their refuges, where the additional weight caused nests to crumble and fall, raining cinnamon down on the brave merchants. Then there were other stories about cinnamon trees guarded by deadly snakes and winged animals patrolling shallow tree-filled lakes.
It wasn’t until the first century that Pliny finally exposed the harrowing tales as a farce.
Around that same time, Nero, who had just killed his pregnant wife, decided to show the world how grief-stricken he was by burning his beloved’s body with more cinnamon than was typically available to Rome in a whole year, resulting in what was probably the most expensive funeral pyre in history.
Cinnamon was one of the spices that, in the days before refrigerators, was used in Europe as an antibacterial to preserve meat and to season salt-cured meat.
But the Middle Ages’s European elite also went gaga for imported spices, including cinnamon, because of their religious undertones, and especially because of their mysterious and distant origins.
This highbrow infatuation resulted in exorbitant prices and made spices status symbols, with the trading city of Venice, in particular, making outrageous profits.
The Crusaders and Marco Polo brought valuable cinnamon back to Europe, but it was in the 15th century that profit and control over the spice trade motivated European explorers to take off on worldwide exploration. And while Christopher Columbus was sailing the wrong way looking for the storied spice islands, the Portuguese were landing in Ceylon, where they enslaved the natives and did what they had to do to eliminate competition for cinnamon.
From the 16th through 19th centuries, wars ensued over cinnamon, with the Dutch kicking the Portuguese out of Ceylon in the 17th century.
After bribing and threatening the local king, the Dutch formed their own monopoly, but were booted out themselves by the French, who, in 1796, lost the country to the English.
Eventually, everyone figured out cinnamon trees are relatively easy to grow and, starting in 1833, this once-rare evergreen has been sprouting up in areas such as Java, Sumatra, Borneo, the West Indies, Vietnam and South America.
The result has been a downfall of the Ceylon monopoly, with a 3-ounce bottle of cinnamon costing around $5 instead of in the neighborhood of $990, a slight price reduction from the time of Pliny.
Sources: Standage, Tom. An Edible History of Humanity (2009); Root, Waverley, Root. Food (1980); Cloves, Cinnamon, Mace and Nutmeg at factsanddetails.com, UCLA Biomedical Library at unitproj.libarry.ucla.edu.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through www.cynthianobles.com.