There’s a spice hiding out in many Quebec pantries which has always played a major role in its history and culinary culture: cinnamon. We may hate it or love it – but do we really even know what it is? What if we told you that the product which you buy from the supermarket that you’ve been told is cinnamon is not true cinnamon? What is often sold as cinnamon is in fact cassia, a family member granted, but not true cinnamon.
To fully understand this misrepresentation with which we have lived for so long, we have to go back a few centuries. True cinnamon, also known as Ceylon cinnamon, has one unique terroir – Sri Lanka. And to this day it is still considered to be the best terroir for cinnamon production in the world. Cassia on the other hand, comes from China, Vietnam and Indonesia. There are of course lots of reasons – geography being one – which made the cassia trade lucrative for many countries. True cinnamon was discovered when traders and sailors began exploring Sri Lanka (previously known as Ceylon) and it was then that the differences in quality and flavor of cinnamon versus cassia became apparent. At that time cinnamon, like many spices, was considered a luxury product, available only to the rich.
Cinnamon and cassia can be considered to be distant cousins. Cinnamon comes from the Cinnamomum verum tree whereas cassia is the bark of a variety of cultivated trees from many terroirs. Both cinnamon and cassia contain the same volatile oil cinnamic aldehyde, in addition cinnamon also contains three other oils which is what makes it so unique and complex.
Cassia sticks are dark brown and fairly thick. For this reason it is easy to grind the sticks to a fine powder. The spice is a little peppery and can be described as being slightly hot. It is used in soups, stews and a variety of savory dishes. It is also a key ingredient in many Middle-Eastern recipes and is essential in many of our local Quebec dishes such as our famous ragout, apple pie or American-style cinnamon brioches. Cassia is versatile and as a result has made its way into many cooking cultures throughout the world.
True cinnamon can be easily recognized because of its pale brown, caramel-like color as well as by its friability. Unlike cassia, it is made by rolling several thin layers of bark together to form a single stick. Because it is more fragile than cassia, it’s possible to crush it between our fingers. Once ground, cinnamon very rapidly releases its volatile oils which are essential to its complex yet delicate flavor. This is another reason why cassia was favored over true cinnamon; it could be ground ahead of time and yet still retain much of its original flavor.
Harvesting cinnamon requires tremendous talent and skill on the part of producers. Cinnamon is found between the bark and the “wood” of the tree and is first scored and then peeled away from the inner lining of the trunk, using a special knife. It is during the drying process that the cinnamon rolls around itself and takes the shape that is so familiar to us all. Cinnamon is often used in desserts because it adds a delicate touch which is far less pronounced than cassia. In Sri Lanka, it is often added to different curries. It is also a key ingredient in the traditional and deliciously famous Mexican dish, Mole Negro Zapoteco. Mexico is the largest importer of cinnamon from Sri Lanka and Mexicans use it with equal enthusiasm in savory as well as in sweet dishes.
There are many things to consider when it comes to choosing (if you have absolutely must choose!) between cassia and cinnamon; the cooking style, the flavor balance that is desired or personal preference. Simply learning to distinguish between the two spices allows us to appreciate them both for their unique attributes. That’s really all it takes for them both to become integral to many of your cooking adventures.