Sri Lanka (originally Ceylon) is the largest producer of real cinnamon in the world. A beautiful gentle spice which has been used both for cooking and medicine since ancient times – lots of references in the bible and in Egypt cinnamon was used for embalming.
When buying cinnamon much of what is sold as cinnamon is an inferior product called cassia which is less expensive but has a much stronger and more acrid flavour.
There are four commercial spices all sold as cinnamon, only one is true cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) produced from the inner bark of a small evergreen tree of the laurel family.
Cassia which is frequently sold as cinnamon comes from three related species, Cassia Burmannii (Indonesian) Cassia Aromaticum (Chinese) and Cassia Loureiroi (Vietnamese).
True cinnamon is native to the lush tropical forests of lovely Sri Lanka, a country formerly known as Ceylon, hence the name Ceylon cinnamon. The gentle coastal hills in the south of Sri Lanka are especially suited to the growth of cinnamon. Wars have been fought over this spice. In 1505 the Portuguese came to this part of the world in search of cinnamon so they could cut out the Arab middlemen. In those days it was gathered from wild trees but when the Dutch succeeded the Portuguese the first plantations were sown and cinnamon has been flourishing ever since.
On a recent trip to Sri Lanka I wanted to see the process of cinnamon production for myself so I visited Mirissa Hills a working Cinnamon Estate with 360 degree views over Weligama Bay. Thilak the general manager, showed us around the estate which grows both cinnamon (35 acres) and galangal (15 acres) We passed the little temple to Pathini, The Buddhist God of cinnamon on our way to the plantation, the air was filled with the scent of cinnamon. Thilak explained the whole process from the saving of the seed, the production of the seedlings to the cultivation and harvesting and finally peeling and drying. The trees are planted at a spacing of 3 x 4 feet; the two year old plants are pruned drastically which prompts the tree to produce lots of new shoots. Harvesting begins in the third year and every eight months thereafter, as opposed to tea which has to be harvested every seven days.
The cinnamon is still harvested and peeled in the same time honoured way by the skilled Salagama caste. It cannot be mechanised and the process has survived virtually unchanged since the era of the ancient kingdoms, through colonial domination right down to present times.
The cinnamon peelers go early to the fields in the morning to harvest the cinnamon. They choose twigs about 5 feet long and about 1 ½ inches thick. The straighter they are the easier they will be to peel. Next, any shoots or leaves are trimmed with a sharp curved machete. The peelers sit cross legged on hessian sacks on the floor in the peeling shed with their bundle of sticks by their sides. They need just three tools, a curved peeler, a brass rod and a small sharp knife called a kokaththa.
First the outer dark leathery layer is shaved off; this is returned to the cinnamon fields for compost. Next the cinnamon peeler picked up the brass rod, about 12 inches in length and begins to massage the surface of the peeled stick. After a couple of minutes when the inner bark loosens and becomes more flexible, he takes the kokaththa and with a surgeons precision cuts two parallel slits in the bark, then in one deft movement he eases the thin layer of cinnamon free from the stick. Nothing is wasted; the latter is used for firewood.
When he (the peelers are all male) has several layers of precious inner bark he carefully layers them inside each other, over lapping them to create a four foot quill.
These were carefully laid on strings of coconut coir hanging beneath the tin roof – it will take eight days, away from sunlight to curl and dry. Then they will be rolled tightly, and allowed to dry for a further ten days. The cinnamon quills are then tied into large bundles to sell in the market where they will be precisely cut into the cinnamon sticks we know.
I wanted to buy some but Thilak advised me to wait until after the monsoon in May when they have Ellba, the best quality, which sells for between 1,800 and 2000 rupees a kilogram, whereas Hamburg sells for 1,500 rupees.
So how can you judge? True Ceylon cinnamon is pale tan in colour, softer in texture, with a sweet citrus flavour. Cassia has a harder bark that is much more difficult to grind. Ground cinnamon is invariably ‘cut’ with cassia so is darker in colour and stronger and more acrid in taste.
In the US cassia is very often sold as cinnamon although better spice companies are now differentiating between the different types of cinnamon – so read the label carefully – there will be a considerable difference in price. So be sure to buy cinnamon sticks and grind them yourself in a spice or coffee grinder. True cinnamon grinds easily into a powder and fine splinters. Cinnamon is used in a myriad of ways in SriLankan cooking, in tea, curries, cakes, biscuits, drinks and medicinally.
One of the most impressive health benefits of cinnamon is its ability to improve blood sugar control, just ½ teaspoon a day has been shown to significantly reduce blood sugar levels, triglycerides, LDL (bad cholesterol) and total cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes, but make sure it’s real cinnamon.
Beef Stew with Cinnamon, Thyme and Shallots
Try this rich good gutsy beef stew, made with shin of beef, from one of my favourite London gastro pubs, the Eagle in Farringdon Road.
100g (4oz) streaky bacon, chopped
100g (4oz) salt pork fat, washed and chopped (this would be sold as lardo salato in Italian grocers. Alternatively use all streaky bacon.
1.5kg (3¼ lb) shin of beef cut into 3cm (1¼ inch) cubes
½ glass of red wine vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
10 shallots or baby onions peeled but left whole with the root intact (you may find it easier to peel them if they are soaked in cold water first)
5 fat garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
1 tablespoon tomato puree
a handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped, plus extra to garnish
2 fresh bay leaves
a large sprig of thyme
2 strips of orange peel
2 cinnamon sticks
2 glasses of strong red wine
water or beef stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Slowly melt the streaky bacon and pork fat in a wide, heavy casserole. Take the bacon out and put it in a warm bowl. Brown the beef in the pan – in batches if necessary – then add it to the bacon in the bowl. Pour the red wine vinegar into the hot pan and stir to deglaze, letting it bubble until slightly reduced. Pour it over the meat. Heat some olive oil in the pan, add the shallots and garlic cloves with some salt and a generous amount of black pepper and fry for a few minutes over a moderate heat. Stir in the tomato puree and chopped parsley and cook for a minute longer, then return the meat to the pan with any resulting juices.
Make a bouquet of the bay, thyme and orange peel and bury it in the pot with the cinnamon sticks. Heat the red wine, then pour it over the meat and add enough water or stock to bring the level of the liquid to no more than an inch below the surface of the meat. Cover the meat with an inner lid made of foil and then a close-fitting pan lid. Turn the heat to very low or place in a slow oven (150C/Gas Mark 2). It will take around 3 hours to cook, but I would cook it for 2 hours one day, refrigerate it and then finish it the next. Remove any congealed fat, re-heat gently on the top of the stove. Garnish with lots of roughly chopped parsley and serve with a big bowl of mash.
Slow Cooked Pork Belly with Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger and Star Anise
This is a deliciously rich and unctuous dish from A Year in my Kitchen by Skye Gyngell. She likes to serve it with braised lentils, but it is also very good with lightly cooked Asian greens, such as pak choi.
2kg piece belly of pork (organic, free-range)
2 cinnamon sticks
3 star anise
1 tsp cloves
1 red chilli
3cm piece fresh root ginger, peeled
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tbsp chopped coriander, roots and stems
100ml tamari (or soy sauce)
75ml maple syrup
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp sunflower oil
Put the pork belly into a large cooking pot (or pan) in which it fits quite snugly and add cold water to cover. Bring to the boil, then immediately turn off the heat and remove the pork from the pan. Drain off the water and rinse out the pan.
One-third fill the pan with cold water and place over a medium heat. Add the pork, this time along with the spices, chili, ginger, garlic and chopped coriander roots and stems. If there isn’t enough liquid to cover the meat, add some more water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer very gently for 1½ hours until the meat is cooked and very tender. If you have the rib end, the meat will have shrunk back to expose the tips of the bones. With a pair of tongs, carefully remove the meat from the pan and set aside.
Turn the heat up under the pan to high and add the tamari and maple syrup. (If you don’t want the sauce to taste ‘hot’, remove the ginger and chili at this point.) Let the liquid bubble until reduced by half, this will take about 20 minutes. As the sauce reduces, the flavours will become very intense, forming, a rich, dark sauce.
In the meantime, slice the pork belly into individual servings – one rib should be enough per person. Season the ribs with a little salt and pepper. Place a heavy-based frying pan over a high heat and add the oil. Heat until the pan is starting to smoke, then add the pork ribs and brown well on both sides until crunchy and golden brown on the surface. Strain the reduced liquour.
To serve, lay a rib on each warm plate (or soup plate) and spoon over the reduced sauce and warm braised lentils. Serve at once.
Sri Lankan Toast with Cinnamon
4 free range eggs
175ml (4flozs) whole milk
1 teaspoon of freshly ground cinnamon
4 slices white bread
4 tablespoons clarified butter
Whisk the eggs, milk and cinnamon together until well blended. Strain the mixture into a shallow bowl in which you can easily soak the bread. Dip both sides of each slice of bread in the egg mixture. Melt 2 tablespoons of the clarified butter in a frying pan. Fry the bread over a medium heat until very lightly browned, turning once. Serve warm sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Drizzle with honey and serve.
Cinnamon Ice Cream
Serve this delicious ice-cream with an Apple Tart or with a compote of pears.
1/2 cinnamon stick (1- 1 1/2 inches (2 1/2 – 4cms) in length)
8 fl ozs (225ml) milk
8 fl ozs (225ml) cream
5 egg yolks
4ozs (110g) sugar
Grind the cinnamon stick coarsely in a coffee grinder. Put the milk in a saucepan, add the ground cinnamon, bring slowly to scalding point, add the cream then allow to cool. Leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar until white and fluffy, then whisk in the warm infusion. Pour back into the saucepan and cook over a gentle heat stirring all the time until the mixture just coats the back of a spoon.
Sieve it, then cool quickly and freeze in an ice-cream maker or sorbetiere, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Alternatively pour in a plastic box, cover and put into the freezer, whisk once or twice during freezing.
Use any cutter you fancy but these are completely delicious.
Makes 24 biscuits (3 inch x 2 inch)
Makes 48 (3 inch x 1 inch)
115g (4 ¼ oz) butter
115g (4 ¼ oz) pale golden brown sugar
50g (2 oz) caster sugar
1 free range egg
150g (5oz) flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon powder (we grind the cinnamon sticks in a spice grinder)
Cream the butter, add the sugars and beat until light and fluffy. Add the egg. Beat well again and then fold in the flour and cinnamon. Cover with parchment paper and chill for at least an hour.
Roll out and cut into chosen shapes. Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Mark 4.
Bake for 10 minutes approximately until golden but still softish. They will crisp as they cool.
Store in an airtight box.
The 6th West Waterford Festival of Food takes place from Thursday 11th to Friday 14th April. There’s a packed programme of free and ticketed events, some held indoors while many unfold in the great outdoors. Marie Power ‘The Sea Gardener’ will host seaweed seminars on Clonea Beach while botanist Paul Green will lead ‘crude food’ trails in Colligan Woods. There’s a ‘Raw Food Revolution’ going on too with nutritionists, chefs and food entrepreneurs demonstrating the huge value and great taste of raw foods. Children get to do cookery classes alongside their parents and mini- buses take festival goers on tour to visit local producers, bakers, brewers, juice and cheese makers. The legendary nose to tail UK chef Fergus Henderson will be at The Tannery on Friday April 12th while on stage in Dungarvan’s town hall theatre to cook their favourite dishes will be Ross Lewis, Rachel Allen and Garrett Byrne. www.
The Intensive 12 Week Certificate course at the Ballymaloe Cookery School is looked on as an investment. Students learn the skills to earn their living from their cooking. Summer course begins on 22nd April 2013 – seewww.cookingisfun.ie