The use in food of true cinnamon from Sri Lanka, or Ceylon cinnamon, is not as common as the more familiar cassia, which is the one mostly used in Scandinavia for baking and hot drinks and in a lot of winter and Christmas dishes.
True cinnamon has a more complex and flowery taste. The aroma is light and complex, not as strong and pungent as cassia. True cinnamon is a rare spice in Scandinavia, and it is also more expensive.
In Sri Lanka, they grow cinnamon on hills and valleys. The cinnamon tree can be seen in many places. Some farms still do not use pesticides to grow cinnamon, and human labor does all the cultivating and processing.
Harvesting cinnamon is a hard and difficult job, and the preparation of the spice takes significant craftsmanship. You must carefully remove the cinnamon bark from the tree’s branches. Only skilled and experienced people can do it well. In the old days, these workers were called “chalias.” European colonizers were not known for treating them humanely; they were treated more like slaves.
Cinnamon has been written about going far back into history. In the Bible, in the book of Exodus, both kinds of cinnamon were described. The Lord gave Moses a recipe for holy oil with cinnamon that he had to prepare.
Cinnamon has played a vital role in European history. It was an important commodity and a source of growth for the European economy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Christopher Columbus went looking for cinnamon in the West Indies, but as far as we know he found nothing. His fellow countryman Lorenzo Almeida had more luck. In 1505, when Almeida arrived in Ceylon, he found cinnamon trees.
In Europe, cinnamon was sold at a high price for decades, but in the 16th century the price fell and it became more accessible for the common man. Thus, cinnamon became the most popular spice in Europe, as reflected in recipes from that era.
In 1795, the British took over control of Sri Lanka from the French. The trade in cinnamon was about the economy and power and, as with a lot of other commodities, played an important role in history.
Cinnamon trees are not tall; they are more like a bush, and they are pruned often. Harvesting is done twice a year, and at each harvest you take three to four branches and leave the rest. You can also pick the leaves and make cinnamon oil because the leaves have a wonderful delicate and flowery scent. A tree can live for about 40 years; after that, cinnamon producers plant new ones.
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To harvest cinnamon, the branches are processed by scraping off the outer bark, which is discarded. Then the workers loosen the inner bark with a special knife. The bark has to come off when still wet. The 1-meter-long bark strips are folded into each other as a stick. This must be done before the bark dries. (The inner wood is sold off separately to households as firewood.) The cinnamon sticks are then left to dry for a few days under a roof, and then they are dried in the sun. The whole process takes about five to six weeks.
Recently, I visited a cinnamon farm in Sri Lanka just outside Galle. The work of making the cinnamon sticks is carried out in a house on the hill in the shadows of the palm trees and only a few meters from where the cinnamon is harvested.
The cinnamon worker sits on the floor on a leather carpet, wearing a leather apron. To see a worker cut, prepare and clean the branches is fascinating — utter craftsmanship. It takes years of experience to learn the trade, and some of the workers have been employed here for more than 30 years. The hand movements are very meticulous and particular. You can really see the care and craftsmanship both in using the knife and in the entire process of folding the layers of bark into the stick.
In Sri Lankan cooking, it was very interesting to see that they used small pieces of cinnamon in many curries. It is a bit like how we in the West and in Scandinavia use bay leaves in stews, soups and broths, which makes sense because the cinnamon tree is of the same family as the bay leaf tree. In small quantities, cinnamon adds a subtle flavor to such dishes as fish curries, dal or beetroot curry.
Cinnamon is called “kanel” in Danish and Norwegian and a similar word in Swedish. It originates from the German “Canelle.” Both powder and stick cinnamon are part of Scandinavian food culture. Besides baking, we use it in Danish, apples cakes, breads, buns and spice cakes. It has been used here since the Middle Ages in many variations.
For the past 100 years, different versions of cinnamon buns have become popular. They are baked differently in each Scandinavian country. In Copenhagen, Denmark, cinnamon buns seem to be rising in popularity. All the bakeries are doing variations on cinnamon rolls or buns in all sizes, and a lot of them are organic.
We eat cinnamon in our legendary cinnamon buns and rolls; in hot drinks; and especially at Christmas in the gløgg. We eat cinnamon powder mixed with sugar on rice porridge and in rømmegrø, a Norwegian specialty; it’s a porridge made from a sour cream called rømmer boiled with wheat flour, and then hot milk is added. We use cinnamon for curing herring and salmon, in aquavit, in preserving and in various cookies. For this time of year, when it is cold, the fragrance of the warm spice in cinnamon buns is a treat I think we should succumb to at least once a week.
Makes 24 buns
For the buns:
2¼ teaspoon dry yeast
2 cups lukewarm whole milk
1⅓ stick softened butter
1 egg, beaten
6½ cups plain wheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
⅔ cup caster sugar
For the filling:
2 sticks soft butter
⅔ cup caster sugar
6 teaspoons ground cinnamon
For the glaze:
1 egg, beaten
Sugar for sprinkling
1. In a large bowl , dissolve the dry yeast in the warm milk using a wooden spoon. Mix in the butter, then add the egg and stir again.
2. Sift together the flour, salt and cardamom and add to the milk mixture with the sugar, stirring to form a dough. Keep stirring until the dough comes cleanly from the edge of the bowl.
3. Knead the dough on a floured work surface for about 5 minutes. Return it to the bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for 1 hour at room temperature.
4. Make the filling by mixing together the butter, sugar and cinnamon.
5. Divide the dough in half and roll it out to make two rectangles measuring about 16 by 12 inches (40 by 30 centimeters).
6. Spread the cinnamon filling over the top of each. Roll each piece of dough into a wide cylinder and cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) slices.
7. Line some baking trays with baking paper or parchment paper. Lay the cinnamon rolls on the paper, pressing down on each one so they spread slightly. Cover and leave to rise for 30 minutes.
8. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C or Gas 7).
9. Brush the cinnamon rolls with the beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar.
10. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, then leave to cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or cold with a nice cup of tea.
Top photo: A worker prepares the bark in the cinnamon house at a Sri Lankan cinnamon farm. Credit: Trine Hahnemann