Cinnamon has been in use by humans for thousands of years—as early as 2,000 B.C. Egyptians employed it, as well as the related spice cassia, as a perfuming agent during the embalming process, and it was even mentioned in the Old Testament as an ingredient in anointing oil. Evidence suggests it was used throughout the ancient world, and that Arab traders brought it to Europe, where it proved equally popular: Legend holds that the Roman emperor Nero burned as much as he could find of the precious spice on the funeral pyre of his second wife Poppaea Sabina in A.D. 65 to atone for his role in her death.
The Arabs transported cinnamon via cumbersome land routes, resulting in a limited, expensive supply that made the use of cinnamon a status symbol in Europe in the Middle Ages. As the middle class began to seek upward mobility, they too wanted to purchase the luxury goods that were once only available to noble classes. Cinnamon was particularly desirable as it could be used as a preservative for meats during the winter. Despite its widespread use, the origins of cinnamon was the Arab merchants’ best-kept secret until the early 16th century. To maintain their monopoly on the cinnamon trade and justify its exorbitant price, Arab traders wove colorful tales for their buyers about where and how they obtained the luxury spice. One such story, related by the 5th-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus, said that enormous birds carried the cinnamon sticks to their nests perched high atop mountains that were insurmountable by any human. According to the story, people would leave large pieces of ox meat below these nests for the birds to collect. When the birds brought the meat into the nest, its weight would cause the nests to fall to the ground, allowing the cinnamon sticks stored within to be collected. Another tall tale reported that the cinnamon was found in deep canyons guarded by terrifying snakes, and first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder proposed that cinnamon came from Ethiopia, carried on rafts with no oars or sails, powered by “man alone and his courage.”
Struggling to meet increasing demand, European explorers set out to find the spice’s mysterious source. Christopher Columbus wrote to Queen Isabella, claiming he had found cinnamon and rhubarb in the New World, but when he sent samples of his findings back home, it was discovered that the spice was not, in fact, the coveted cinnamon. Gonzalo Pizarro, a Spanish explorer, also sought cinnamon in the Americas, traversing the Amazon hoping to find the “pais de la canela,” or “cinnamon country.”
Around 1518, Portuguese traders discovered cinnamon at Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka, and conquered its island kingdom of Kotto, enslaving the island’s population and gaining control of the cinnamon trade for about a century until the Ceylon kingdom of Kandy allied with the Dutch in 1638 to overthrow the Portuguese occupiers. The Dutch defeated the Portuguese but held the kingdom in their debt for their military services, so once again Ceylon was occupied by European traders, handing the cinnamon monopoly over to the Dutch for the next 150 years. Ceylon then was taken over by the British in 1784 after their victory in the fourth Anglo-Dutch War, but by 1800, cinnamon was no longer an expensive, rare commodity, as it had begun to be cultivated in other parts of the world, and other delicacies such as chocolate and cassia, which has a flavor similar to cinnamon, began to rival it in popularity.
Today, we typically encounter two types of commercial cinnamon: Ceylon and cassia cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon is primarily produced in Indonesia and has the stronger smell and flavor of the two varieties. This cheaper variety is what we usually buy in grocery stores to sprinkle on our apple pies or French toast. The more expensive Ceylon cinnamon, most of which is still produced in Sri Lanka, has a milder, sweeter flavor popular for both baking and flavoring hot drinks such as coffee or hot chocolate.