I’ve really gotten into baking this winter. During the “snowstorm that wasn’t” over superbowl weekend I got to the grocery store a little late to prepare for being locked indoors due to the impending snowstorm of doom and found that all the sliced bread was gone. So I bought yeast and flour and I spent the uneventful snowpocalypse proofing dough and making various rolls and breads. It was awesome.
One of the better fruits of my baking labor (if I say so myself) was a cinnamon bread. Nothing too fancy: I simply rolled out the dough before baking and applied a generous heap of cinnamon and sugar before rolling it up in the loaf pan. Of course, it was the night of the superbowl, so there was WAY too much food and my bread didn’t get finished. Then it got forgotten. Then it got old. I was cleaning the kitchen today and saw it, still sitting there two weeks later, when I noticed there wasn’t any indication that it was that old. No mold. That’s a little crazy when you figure the sandwich bread I bought AFTER that has already gone moldy and been thrown away… and I know I didn’t add any preservatives to my dough. Except for the cinnamon of course. Which got me thinking about cinnamon…
The word “Cinnamon” has been applied to a variety of different (but related) substances since it was first “discovered” in 2000 B.C.E. In the modern market, there are two different kinds of cinnamon: what is considered “true cinnamon” (Cinnamomum verum) and Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia). True cinnamon is endemic to Sri Lanka and is sometimes referred to as Ceylon cinnamon. It is more sweet in flavor and is the more expensive of the two spices. Cassia is sometimes referred to as Chinese cinnamon because it was first imported from China although it is now widely cultivated throughout Asia. It is usually what is found in grocery stores when you purchase cinnamon and almost certainly what you are buying if the country of origin is Thailand, Vietnam, or China.
It has long been said that Cinnamon was first documented for use in ancient Egypt, where it was used as one of the embalming spices, although there is some confusion as to which – if not both – type of cinnamon is being used. Some modern research refutes this – or at least, questions the validity of cinnamon being correctly translated. Andrew Dalby states no one has definitively proven the spice we know as cinnamon existed in Egypt until 450 B.C.E., almost a thousand years after the original claims. The faulty translation of the hieroglyphics also accounts for the confusion surrounding which type of cinnamon was used, if it was cinnamon at all (Dalby, 2000).
However by the first century, C.E. cinnamon was widely known and used. Dioscorides, however, classifies cassia and cinnamon as two different spices in De Materia Medica. He tells us:
all cinnamon is warming, diuretic, softening and digestive. It draws out the menstrual flow and is an abortifacient, taken as a drink with myrrh or else applied. It is also good against beasts that put out their poison and against deadly poisons…Rubbed on with honey it takes away freckles and sunburn… It is mixed with precious ointments and in general it is effective for many things. It is prepared for storage by being pounded into small pieces, put into wine, and dried in the shade (Dioscorides)
While cassia, he states:
takes away freckles applied with honey, and encourages the menstrual flow. Taken as a drink it helps those bitten by snakes. It is good too taken as a drink for all internal inflammation, and the kidneys; for women too as hip baths, and as inhalations of fumes or smoke for dilation of the uterus. If there is no cinnamon at hand then twice as much of this mixed with medicines will do the same things. It is very effective for many things (Dioscorides)
And oil of cinnamon (which is really a combination of many different resins and oils, including cinnamon, myrrh, and calamus) is “is good for diseases around the vulva” (Dioscorides).
It is interesting that he details that both cinnamon and cassia are different, even though he reports that they do the same thing. It seems that he was aware of the potency difference – one must simply double the amount of cassia taken to reap the benefits of cinnamon.
The Romans considered cinnamon to be an aphrodisiac probably due in part to the “warming” action Dioscorides reported (Telesco, 1998). All members of the Cinnamomum genus produce cinnamaldehyde, which acts as a vasodilator, opening up blood vessels and increasing blood flow throughout the body. Generally, it was taken as a wine which further helped its reputation as a sexual stimulant.
Spiced wine drinks remained popular through the Middle Ages and one particular recipe became known as “Hippocras” due to it’s filtering process through a device called the sleeve of Hippocrates (Day, 2003). It contained ginger, cinnamon, sugar, grains of paradise, and pepper and more about it’s fascinating history can be read here.
Even into the 20th century, cinnamon and cassia were recognized as prized additions to the pharmacopoeia. Mrs. Grieve’s 1931 herbal lists both cinnamon and cassia as effective cures. True cinnamon is:
prescribed in powder and infusion but usually combined with other medicines. It stops vomiting, relieves flatulence, and given with chalk and astringents is useful for diarrhoea and haemorrhage of the womb (Grieve, 1931)
while cassia (what she calls bastard cinnamon) is:
stomachic, carminative, mildly astringent, said to be emmenagogue and capable of decreasing the secretion of milk. The tincture is useful in uterine haemorrhage and menorrhagia, the doses of 1 drachm being given every 5, 10 or 20 minutes as required. It is chiefly used to assist and flavour other drugs, being helpful in diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, and to relieve flatulence (Grieve, 1931)
As we saw with Dioscorides, both types of cinnamon are labeled for similar effects. The only noted difference here is that cassia is also considered when trying to decrease the production of breastmilk.
And let’s not forget the guys! Cinnamon has had a wide range of folk treatments (and some that are currently being scientifically tested) for men. Folk remedies include rubbing the penis with cinnamon to prevent premature ejaculation as well as the consumption of cinnamon for BPH. However recent studies have found that these methods might not be so far off base. A cream product being tested in Korea known as SS cream showed statistically significant increase in sexual longevity for men who suffer from premature ejaculation. The cream is made up of both anesthetic and vasoactive compounds, including those found in cinnamon (Linton and Wylie, 2010).
Perhaps the most interesting fact about cinnamon was how protective people were of it. It was able to fetch a high price at market, so cinnamon importers made a healthy living off their goods. In order to discourage others from entering the cinnamon trade, many stories were made up about its production. Pliny the Elder recounted that it was guarded by the Phoenix, at bird that:
liveth 660 Years: and when he groweth old, he builds a Nest with the Twigs of Cassia and Frankincense Trees : and when he hath filled it with Spices, he dieth upon it. He saith, also, that out of his Bones and Marrow there breedeth at first, as it were, a little Worm, from which proceeds a young Bird ; and the first Thing this young one does, is to perform the Funeral Rites of the former Phoenix, and then to carry away the whole Nest to the City of the Sun, near Panchaea, and to lay it down upon the Altar (Pliny)
and Herodotus “described the ‘winged animals much resembling bats, which screech horribly, and are very valiant’ – and apparently have the ability to take one’s eyes out” to deter would be spice hunters (Howell, 2009).
So now you know. I think I’ll make it my mission to track down some true cinnamon and do a taste test against the stuff I’ve always thought was cinnamon. Hopefully I don’t be killed by a rogue phoenix.