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Trying to imagine the holidays without the aroma and flavor of cinnamon is like picturing Thanksgiving without turkey. Though prevalent year-round, cinnamon really steps into the spotlight in November and December, as foods from savory to sweet demand its signature taste. In fact, more than 15.5 million ounces of cinnamon are purchased in U.S. grocery stores during the holiday season. There’s much more to this fragrant spice than you ever imagined! In this installment of the Spice Buyer’s Journal, Al Goetze takes us on the cinnamon trail to learn more about one of our favorite spices.
Cinnamon is tops on my list of the most important spices. I like everything about it! If I had my way, I’d eat it at breakfast, lunch and dinner (and sometimes, I do). Cinnamon is the bark of a tropical evergreen tree. The countries where it flourishes are beautiful, with lush green, mountainous terrain and diverse cultures. What most people don’t realize is that there are several different, but related, sub-species of the genus Cinnamomum. Each has similar, but distinct, flavor nuances.
Cinnamon grows in the tropical highlands of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam. Sri Lankan cinnamon comes from a small, young tree and has a very thin bark that releases a mild flavor with a citrusy note. It is not commonly used in the U.S. Vietnamese cinnamon is from a large, older tree and yields a stronger, bolder taste profile similar to cinnamon red-hot candies. Indonesian cinnamon, also known as Korintji, has a delicate flavor — warm and sweet with a touch of spicy.
Indonesian cinnamon is what most Americans have enjoyed since childhood. It grows prolifically in the majestic volcanic mountain ranges of Western Sumatra. Korintji is actually the name of a famous mountain that still has cinnamon trees growing wild alongside newer, cultivated trees. Indonesia is the largest producer of cinnamon in the world today. Cinnamon quills are hand-harvested by farmers and range in length from 2.5 to more than 12 inches. After harvest, the quills are sun dried and then sent to market for sales to the U.S. and Europe.
Vietnamese cinnamon, also known as Saigon, is the most coveted and exotic cinnamon available. Though, in America, we’ve only been able to enjoy its premium taste during the past decade, Saigon is well worth a try. The word for cinnamon in Vietnamese is que (pronounced “kway”). Saigon cinnamon has double the amount of volatile oil of Korintji. The volatile oil is what delivers the flavor and aroma — higher content means greater intensity.
Recently, I traveled to Huong Hoa to observe the latest farming and harvesting techniques. I flew from Ho Chi Minh to the town of Da Nang where I met up with my local guide, a spice merchant named Binh. This part of Vietnam is exquisite, with landscape extremes from barren, sandy beaches on the China Sea, to ancient towns such as Hue and magnificent foothills that rise rapidly to a backdrop of high mountains.
Almost all Vietnamese cinnamon is grown on small farms with trees cultivated from seedlings. The best bark comes from trees that are 15–25 years of age. As a result, only a small quantity — less than 1,000 tons — of premium bark is harvested each year. At harvest time, the farmers cut down the trees and remove the bark, in three-foot sections, with a small knife. The first three feet from the base of the tree have the thickest bark and highest flavor concentration. The higher up the tree, the thinner and less flavorful the bark.
Sun drying, over a period of several days, causes the bark to curl into quills, which are sorted by bark thickness and general appearance, then prepared for sale in a nearby village market.
At one of the farms we visited, the farmer offered me some small pieces of fresh bark to taste. The flavor was, as expected, simultaneously sweet and hot. It was wonderful!
Back at my seaside hotel, I sampled some of the local cuisine, including roast duck, pork five spice and Pho (a traditional noodle soup), while taking in the view of the beautiful China Sea to the East and the sunset over the cinnamon trees growing to the West.
No spice rack is complete without two essential types of cinnamon — Korintji and Saigon. Think Korintji for sweeter, balanced flavor and Saigon for a more robust, intense taste. Here are a few my favorite ways to enjoy each variety:
• Korintji cinnamon, simply labeled “cinnamon,” is ideal for cakes, pancakes, French toast, oatmeal cookies, cinnamon buns, apple pie, mashed sweet potatoes, and spice rubs for chicken and pork.
• Saigon cinnamon (available in the McCormick® Gourmet Collection®) is best used in dishes that have a more complex flavor, such as roasted vegetables, tart and citrus fruits, steak rubs, marinades and vinaigrettes, chili, and stews.
McCormick’s chief spice buyer, Al Goetze, travels to exotic ports-of-call, trekking across varied terrain in search of the finest herbs and spices. In this journal entry, Al explains the versatility, history and cultivation of cumin, and invites us inside his recent trip to India, the largest grower and consumer of this incomparable spice.
McCormick was founded in 1889 in Baltimore, Md. Today it is the largest spice company in the world. McCormick sources only the finest ingredients from around the globe to bring the highest quality flavors to consumers. For more information, visit McCormick online at www.mccormick.com, or call 1-800-MEAL-TIP (1-800-632-5847).
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