Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
Cinnamon is a spice that we have all had the opportunity to try, whether in fancy coffees, liqueurs or delicious buns. Whilst the “true” cinnamon species is Cinnamomum verum, the most common source of cinnamon is Cinnamomum cassia. Both species originate in Asia, with C. verum being native to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) and C. cassia originating in southern China. In order to distinguish the cinnamon produced by the two species in the spice trade, cinnamon refers to C. verum whilst cassia refers to C. cassia. This is because, C. verum is more expensive of the two due to its sweeter taste and aroma as less than 30% of cinnamon exports come from Sri Lanka.
Cinnamon has been traded for many thousands of years, with the imports into Egypt reported as early as 2000 BCE so it is no surprise that there are countless tales and historical events that surround this spice. From Sieur de Joinville believing cinnamon was fished from the Nile at the end of the world and Herodotus writing about mystical giant birds (such as a phoenix) that used cinnamon sticks to build their nests, the history of cinnamon is rich in legends of its origin as it wasn’t until 1270 that it was mentioned the spice grew in Sri Lanka. However as sweet as this spice may be it also appears to have a bloody history. Aside from the countless wars raged over the right to trade cinnamon, it was also used on the funeral pyre of Poppaea Sabina, the wife of Nero, in 65 AD. It is said that he burned over a years supply as recompense for the part he played in her death.
There are a total of 5 species (C. burmannii, C. cassia, C. citriodorum, C. loureiroi and C. verum) that produce cinnamon however C. verum and C. cassia are where the majority of international commerce is sourced from. Production of cinnamon is fairly straight forward albeit time-consuming. The outer bark of the tree is shaved off exposing the inner bark which is the cinnamon layer. This inner bark is also shaved off and left to dry, naturally curling as it does. By comparison the cinnamon of C. verum has a more delicate flavour than that of C. cassia as well as having thinner bark that is more easy to crush and produces a much more smooth texture.
Cinnamon is prominent in the practice of Ayurveda medicine as well as traditional Chinese medicine, being one of the 50 fundamental herbs. Traditionally it has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments from digestive problems, respiratory problems, arthritis and infections. In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed that cinnamon is able to treat these ailments through it’s ability to balance the Yin and Wei as well being a counterflow for Qi. These terms are aptly explained here for those who are interested. While there is little scientific evidence for the treatment of digestive and respiratory disorders, cinnamon does appear to possess antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial properties which may help to fight infections although at this moment in time it is inconclusive in studies trialled on humans. Cinnamon produced from C. cassia coumarin, which thins the blood, can be toxic to the liver in high concentrations so it is advised that only a few grams per day be consumed.
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Guest series by: Sophie Mogg
Continuing on from last weeks post, I will be continuing my exploration into plant species within South Asia. This particular blog post will feature the otherwise ordinary shrub known for its highly pigmented dye, Lawsonia inermis.
Lawsonia inermis L., commonly referred to as Henna, is a tall shrub or small tree ranging in height from 1.8-7.6m tall. Native to Africa and South Asia, L. inermis thrives at high temperatures and cannot survive the milder climate (below 11°C) found within the UK. At 35-45°C is when the most dye, referred to as Lawsone or hannotannic acid, is produced. It is this dye that produces the dark red-orange pigment that Henna is known for.
Harvested leaves are ground into a fine powder and often mixed with a mild acidic liquid such as tea, lemon juice or lime juice to produce the paste used in the traditional practice of mehndi/mehendi. Mehndi is the art of piping the henna past onto the skin in beautifully intricate patterns often containing floral and geometric designs. Mehndi is typically applied in the nights before a wedding, with a tradition of hiding the groom’s name amongst the bride-to-be’s mehndi.
Aside from mehndi, henna is also used holistically in the Ayurveda practice of medicine. It is often mixed with essential oils and applied topically to treat headaches, stomach pains and burns as well as open wounds and fever. Henna can also be used as a form of sunblock. Henna would also be applied to colour the hooves, paws and tails of particularly favoured horses, donkeys and salukis.
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