Ah, cinnamon, nature’s most aromatic tree bark. I use it on everything. Harvested from the inner bark layer of several varieties of evergreen trees of the Cinnamomum genus, cinnamon is divided into two species. Cinnamomum verum, better known as Ceylon cinnamon, or “true cinnamon” originating from Sri Lanka – widely considered to be superior – and Cinnamomum cassia, or Cassia cinnamon, which contains three species from China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Cassia is the most widely sold variety, both ground and in scrolls (sticks).
Cinnamon has been around for a long time. The perfumy spice was so highly prized among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift fit for kings and gods. Proof of this is the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Miletus that records the offering of cinnamon to the eponymous deity. Those resourceful Greeks also used cinnamon to flavor wine together with absinth wormwood. In Rome, Pliny shared an account of the early spice trade across the Red Sea that cost Rome 100 million sesterces a year, and noted that 327 grams (a little more than 10 ounces) of cinnamon cost up to 300 denarii, the wage of ten months’ labor! Spices were a huge part of funerary functions. But cinnamon was too expensive to be commonly used on funeral pyres in Rome – although Emperor Nero is said to have burned a year’s worth of the city’s supply at the funeral for his wife Poppaea in 65 AD.
Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon as a flavoring and a medicine, as well as an embalming agent. A Chinese book on botanical medicine, dated roughly around 2700 BCE, also mentions the healing wonders of cinnamon. Some swear by its healing powers even to this day. The essential oil responsible for cinnamon’s aroma has antifungal and antibacterial properties, which are known to reduce infections, help fight tooth decay and bad breath. Cinnamon is loaded with powerful polyphenol antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory effects, which may help lower the risk of disease like cholesterol, triglycerides and high blood pressure. Cinnamon has been shown to significantly increase sensitivity to the hormone insulin, therefore has a potent anti-diabetic effect at 1-6 grams per day. In animal studies, cinnamon has been furthermore shown to lead to various improvements for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Cinnamon is widely used in baking and cooking. In Italy, aside from a few of continental sweets (i.e. torta di mele, panforte and old fashioned mele cotte – baked apples) cinnamon is used mostly in Sicilian confectionary and savory cuisine. In their dishes Sicilians commonly employ dried fruits, sugar, citrus, pine nuts, rice, raisins in their traditional dishes, as well as spices like nutmeg, cloves, pepper and cinnamon. This is a clear influence of the Arab domination of the island in the X and XI centuries.
Cinnamon, however has as lots to contribute to the savory side of Italian cuisine. Take the classic ragù alla Bolognese. Its character is built upon the classic soffritto (mirepoix, or minced onion, carrot and celery) but it’s the addition of milk and a grating of cinnamon and nutmeg that brings the flavor alive on the palate. The spices counterbalance the acidity of the tomatoes as well as complement the sweetness of the ground meats.
The same important role is taken up by cinnamon in some renditions of the cucina Romana classic braised oxtail coda alla vaccinara: while the tender meat, celery and tomato sauce take the starring roles, it’s the background that enchants, with cinnamon making an important contribution together with dark cacao powder.
Lastly, one of the best ways to employ cinnamon in the Italian kitchen is steeping it in vin brulé, the heated and spiced wine typical of the Dolomites. The French term used in Italian Alpine regions for “burnt wine”, is a deliciously aromatic hot beverage in many ways similar to mulled wine and Scandinavian glögg. Corroborating, reinvigorating and a potent disinfectant, Italian vin brulé is an accepted cure against the common cold and winter-related blues. Traditionally native to mountain areas – where the frigid weather is more frequent – vin brulé is commonly served in high altitude mountain resort lodges, and can therefore explain curious ski slope behavior.