Britain’s Story of Cinnamon: a look through the cookbooks
Audio version read by Dan Lepard.
It’s curious, given Britain’s once dominant position in the cinnamon trade, especially during the latter part of the 18th century right through to the early 20th, that specific varieties of cinnamon and cassia are rarely encountered in modern British baking. It’s not a spice-less country: cooks in Britain are relatively familiar with, say black pepper, ground (that’s dried & powdered) ginger, cloves and nutmeg in their baking. It’s that cinnamon on it’s own, today, is largely absent in traditional British baking, in huge contrast to the use made of it by bakers in the USA, Australia and other former colonial countries, where one key flavour of independence appears to cinnamon. To my mind this relative neglect needs to be fixed.
American websites like thespruceeats.com have features such as “The 10 Best Cinnamons in 2021”, tasting dozens of branded varieties, many only available in the USA. Back in December 2018, associate editor Joe Sevier and his colleagues at epicurious.com tested “21 brands of ground cinnamon – both the Ceylon and cassia varieties” for their selection of the best available in the US. I cannot find an equivalent write up on UK food pages (if it exists, do let me know), but I’m guessing that an obstacle would be that for many cooks, cinnamon is an anonymous, generic spice - as my husband just remarked, “it’s like tap water is just tap water” - and food editors, celebrity cooks and the execs who decide which products supermarkets will sell haven’t yet prodded us to question what the cinnamon we buy actually is, where it’s from, and what different cinnamons are available.
Let me explain about ‘different cinnamons’, an idea probably alien to most cooks in Britain. According to a study published in the journal Plants People Planet earlier this year, it’s now thought that there are over 250 known species of cinnamon, each containing slightly different flavour and fragrance compounds, not all for food use, but still a wide selection that producers can supply cooks with, from bark to leaves, flower buds to oils. They are all from the genus Cinnamomum, and this includes a particular type that is widely sold in the UK and around the world: Cinnamomum cassia. The jar of cinnamon I have here, from Lidl, is labelled simply “ground cinnamon cassia”. Now, while the two US roundups I mentioned both rate cassia varieties highly, place of origin is also highlighted, because each species’ flavour and aroma will also be affected by differences in climate, and the soil it is grown in: plantations in India, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, Madagascar, East Timor or Grenada, even when they are growing the same species of Cinnamomum, will produce subtle or even major differences in the final ground spice. The online retailer of exquisite spices, chef Olivier Rœllinger epices-roellinger.com, writes that Madagascar cinnamon, the same species as grown in Sri Lanka, tastes “quite similar to Sri Lankan cinnamon, though less delicate and more peppery…. I particularly like to use it in desserts such as rice pudding, custard, flan and Far Breton” while describing Sri Lankan Alba C5 (the highest grade of Ceylon cinnamon) – often rolled from a single very thin layer of bark and dried in the sun – as giving “a harmonious note to fruit, particularly citrus fruit…at its finest when paired with chocolate”.
When you buy sticks of tightly rolled, utterly thin papery bark labelled cinnamon, it is probably (though not always) from Sri Lanka, often labelled with the country’s former colonial name, as “Ceylon cinnamon”. The skills needed to harvest and peel the bark incredibly thinly for the highest grades of cinnamon are mostly found – according to a 2009 essay on WSWS.org – in poverty-stricken families of Sinhalese and Tamil workers on small cinnamon plantations in the Galle district of Sri Lanka, so when you see cinnamon sticks with this description, this is one indication of where there were sourced. Another way is to see if it’s labelled “Cinnamomum verum” (“verum” is Latin for “true”), as most production from this species is Sri Lankan, and conversely, most cinnamon grown in Sri Lanka is the “verum” species. Sri Lankan Cinnamomum verum has a reputation of being the finest amongst the many varieties and places of cultivation, and historically, was sold at a higher price than its competitors. And this is, today, part of the problem in maintaining its pre-eminence with cooks, who are increasingly curious about and appreciative of the diversity of cinnamon varieties entering the market.
For many customers today, ingredients with overt, punchy flavours rule, ahead of those that offer more subtle nuances. At Battersea’s Kapihan Coffee House & Filipino bakery, co-owner David Motley is specific about the cinnamon they buy: “we mainly use Saigon cinnamon [Cinnamomum loureiroi, a kind of cassia cinnamon] for its strong flavour, and also because it’s so easily available”. But the underlying point is that, in the same way that I might note the differences between superficially identical white bread flours, if you start to taste different cinnamons side-by-side, you will start to see how they vary.
Today in Britain you’re perhaps more likely to encounter cinnamon, and usually cassia “cinnamon”, in what British cooks call “mixed spice”, that thrifty way of buying assorted spices blended for baking, than as a solo flavouring. A jar of Sainsbury’s supermarket mixed spice gives the ingredients as “cinnamon, coriander seeds, dill seeds, ginger, cloves, nutmeg” with Waitrose listing the ingredients as “coriander seeds, cassia, ginger, caraway, nutmeg and cloves”. A mix far more alluring than 19th century bakers found, when they wanted a subtle cinnamon or cassia spiciness in their recipes as – according to an 1895 Lancet study on adulteration of ingredients – mixed spice was primarily allspice (pimento), adulterated with rice or wheat flour or sago meal, with more than half the samples tested containing no other spices.
Earlier recipes tended towards cinnamon rather than cassia, for its delicacy. Mary Cole, cook to the Irish peer Charles Moore, 1st Marquess of Drogheda, writes in ‘The Lady's Complete Guide’ (1791) that cassia would be powdered and turned into a fudge-like sugar candy mixed with musk oil and ambergris (quoting Hannah Glasse, a cookbook author of the 18th century, known particularly for 1747 book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy), while using cinnamon sticks and orange flower water for custard-like almond cream puddings baked in china cups; or, Glasse’s famous rice pudding using a whole cinnamon stick with 115g rice, together with rosewater and grated nutmeg. Cole provides both John Farley’s, author of the 1811 book The Art of London Cookery, recipe for mince pies filled with apples, currants, raisins, a pint of brandy and ground cinnamon with mace, nutmeg and cloves (and, oh yes, a chopped poached calf’s tongue; mustn’t forget that), and John Townsend’s Quince Pie, recipe from his 1773 book The Universal Cook, where the only spice is cinnamon, with candied Seville orange peel, barberries and mulberries dotted through it.
Moving on, the 19th century shows that cassia bark (as well as flower buds) was known to English & Scots cooks, and usually seen as inferior and cheap. The notable cook and bestselling author, William Kitchener, in a recipe for cinnamon cordial, says to pour a bottle of genuine cognac on three ounces of bruised cinnamon, and insists that “cassia will not do”. However, 40 years later, Alexis Soyer (1858) takes a more measured view, writing that cassia “does not contain as much flavour as cinnamon but the aromatic qualities are very similar”. By the 1840s recipes appear for custards leading with cassia as the only spice, or sometimes “cassia or cinnamon” as in Read & Lewis’s “The Cook” (1849).
“New London Cookery”, a rather marvellous book with many cinnamon recipes, was published in 1827 by Esther Hewlett Copley, under the self-effacing pseudonym ‘A Lady’, and republished in 1838 under her own name as ‘The Housekeeper's Guide’. Writing in “Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-century Women Writing on Women in Genesis” (Baylor, 2006), Professor Marion Taylor & Dr Heather Weir note that though Copley’s book “The History of Slavery and its Abolition” is “presently considered her most significant”, it was Copley’s practical household books that made her famous.
Copley’s book was one of the earliest to list British regional specialities, despite its title, and in it we’ll find Shrewsbury Cakes, crisp thin all-butter biscuits flavoured with powdered cinnamon; Banbury cakes, yeasted and flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and honey; and Devonshire varieties of syllabub and junket, topped with clotted cream and pounded (freshly ground) cinnamon, much as arroz con leche is served in Spain and Mexico. A blancmange titled “Rice Flummery” is flavoured with cinnamon, lemon zest and bitter almonds (actually apricot kernels). A custard for an open-topped fresh fruit tart is boiled with cinnamon, bay leaves, and lemon zest. Hot Cross Buns are spiced with cinnamon, allspice and mace, and for Cinnamon Burnt almonds, sugared almonds are tossed with cinnamon in a copper pan over a flame till they caramelize. Cheesecakes, “as made at Magdalen and Oriel Colleges Oxford” and surely related to Maids of Honour, mix cinnamon with curd cheese and brandy, lemon zest, white sugar, eggs and currants. We find it again, as part of a heavily spiced, honey-rich “Queen’s Gingerbread”, and in a simple bread and butter pudding, where the only flavours are cinnamon and bay leaves, and the butter is added as cold slivers on the hot pudding for serving (makes much more sense, to me). A baked chocolate tart with a caramelized sugar top, in a puff pastry crust, is simply flavoured with cinnamon and lemon zest. Seed cake, now beloved of St John’s Fergus Henderson, has the racy addition of cinnamon alongside caraway seeds. Duchess rolls (choux pastry, in effect) are flavoured with cinnamon and lemon zest and filled with jam and cream after baking.
The first half of the 20th century saw this fondness for cinnamon and spices generally in British baking largely vanish, as did our taste for and even knowledge of these old recipes. In fairness, cookbooks had been written mainly for a middle-class, educated market, and for the working poor in Britain there was little access to imported ingredients like spices, or for the generous use of butter, sugar and cream. Successive wars, restrictions and food rationing impacted this sorry situation further. Remarkably good cooking and baking was achieved, but with meagre use of expensive ingredients.
In the 1903 edition of Robert Wells’ “The Modern Flour Confectioner” (commercial pastry chefs in Britain were then referred to as ‘flour confectioners’), the contents are described in the front matter as both “dainties for the working-man’s table” and “a large collection of recipes for cheap cakes, biscuits etc.”. Relatively few recipes specify using cinnamon, other than “Dough Nuts”, “Apple Cake”, a golden syrup and cinnamon sponge called “Crispian Cake”, and small gingerbreads called “Pepper Cakes”, though the book uses butter, sugar and eggs lavishly. But after World War I ended, a war where so many young working-class men died, “hunger stalked the civilian populations of all the combatant nations [as] war and naval blockades reduced food imports,”, and ingredients like cinnamon and cassia were fripperies that might be forgone. In the introduction to “Confectionery: flour and sweets” in 1926, British baker C.J. Russell notes that “restrictions in the varied use of goods used by the baker and confectioner were [still] being gradually removed”, and we should also remember that in baking as in almost every trade, the War had caused the loss of workers trained in the ‘old’ ways. While Russell’s book was intended to pass recipes on to a new generation, there’s a sense of austerity to it, and compared to say 30 or 40 years earlier, it is almost free of spices: cinnamon buns contain only ¼ ounce (7.1g, 3 tsp) for 2lbs (900g) flour, while a kind of spiced shortbread called “Penny Cinnamons” uses a meagre ⅛th ounce (3.55g, 1½ tsp) for 3lbs (1.35kg) flour.
Three years later, in 1929, the Great Depression began, followed a decade later by World War II, and this long period, first of poverty and then scarcity, had an impact on British cooks and bakers which persisted even after food rationing finally ended in 1954. Successive generations which had grown up through hesitancy, hunger and shortages weren’t able to immediately snap back into a freer way of cooking and eating. From the mid-1960s through to today, you see an increased use of cinnamon as a baking ingredient, though less from bringing back old British recipes, and more inspired by baking ideas from overseas. In the New International Confectioner (Virtue & Co, 1968), that bible of baking and pastry formulas typical in 1960s and 70s restaurant pastry sections and pastry shops, there are many European recipes using cinnamon, but few arguably with a British provenance. We do find Somerset Easter cakes[i], really a simple currant biscuit to be made with a pronounced kick of cassia, as were hot cross buns, while Chelsea Buns were to be made with cinnamon – Ceylon cinnamon – because of its subtler flavour.
For part two: Baking with Cinnamon, click here.
[i] New International Confectioner (Virtue & Co, 1968), p430
PDF available for download.