Learning cinnamon by hand

Saturday, 10 May 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Text and pix by Claire Cheney With the help of Trekurious, I had a unique learning experience that greatly enriched my trip to Sri Lanka. My visit to a cinnamon farm was different than anything I’ve ever experienced. For one thing, it was not a typical tourist destination. The farm was just that — a farm, not a tourist destination with a gift shop. So after we met the owner, who led us up a rocky, narrow road to the top of hill, I stepped out of the car and looked around at a landscape covered in cinnamon trees; in the distance, tealeaf bushes shimmered an emerald green. Though the farmer and his staff spoke no English, Suneth (from Trekurious) had come along, and both he and my wonderful driver Shanti helped translate. Before we set off to see the cinnamon trees, the owner took a machete and chopped off the tops of several coconuts to quench our thirst. The water was mildly sweet and delicious. We then set off among the dark green trees: the cinnamon forest. This particular grove was probably five years old, so the trees were only about twice our height, but still, as we walked through the shady farm, the fragrance of cinnamon was unmistakable. One of the farm workers led us alongside the owner, and stopped to show us how to cut one of the shoots from a cinnamon tree. Before doing so we talked briefly about wildlife on the farm: birds and boars, and the occasional peacock, who were considered pests, as they scrape and damage the young cinnamon trees. Though I understood them to be a nuisance, I still loved the image of peacocks wandering through the cinnamon trees, a scene out of an enchanted story. Cutting the cinnamon shoot, which was only about two to three inches across and perhaps eight feet high, the owner explained how only one shoot of the tree is cut at a time, so as to keep the tree alive and producing more and more shoots (or skinny trunks.) The farm worker cut a few from different trunks, trimming off the branches. We then exited the cinnamon grove and headed for the peeling shed, where we were offered more coconut water. Then the peeling began! Sitting on a rug in the middle of the shed (where during peeling season many workers assemble to peel and dry the cinnamon), I was shown how to clean the outside of the cinnamon shoot, using a special tool to scrape off the outer brown bark. Once the outer brown bark is scraped off, you must rub the branch with a brass rod so as to loosen the outer cambium layer of the bark from the inner section. I can’t come up with an analogy because there’s nothing else like it, and it’s hard to explain on paper. But after rubbing the branch with the brass rod, the bark is a little bit ‘looser’ and easier to peel. Then you must score a section of the tree and begin to separate this outer layer from the inner part of the trunk. This outer layer is the cinnamon stick, and this process is called ‘peeling’ as you are removing the thin layer of the bark from the inside of the tree, the way you might remove the peel of a potato. But unlike peeling a potato, peeling cinnamon is very challenging. The bark can be very delicate and stiff at the same time, like thick, wet cardstock, so peeling it off without ripping it can be hard. And yet the goal is to peel it off intact, because this will result in a higher grade. The grade also has to do with how thin the bark is – the thinnest bark is called ‘Alba’ cinnamon and fetches the highest price.  I sat on the rug sweating, intently focused on my cinnamon branch, struggling with the knife to peel the cinnamon without ripping it, all the while breathing in a sweet, fresh fragrance that was unlike anything I’d ever smelled. Fresh cinnamon has a floral quality akin to lilacs or fuschia — green and light but still spicy and warm. It was not the same as dried cinnamon (though I love that smell, too.) Eventually, with the help of the professional Sri Lankan cinnamon peeler, I was able to complete a few cinnamon sticks, of which I was very proud. Cinnamon was the cause of much conflict over the years as many countries worked to dominate the island and the cinnamon trade. The first foreigners to colonise the island were the Dutch, then the Portuguese, and finally the British. Now the island of Sri Lanka is independent but still holds the monopoly on this particular species of cinnamon, Cinnamon zeylancium. After we left the farm, I was filled with a new knowledge — one that didn’t come from the internet, or from books, or even from just looking at a tree. The knowledge was in my hands, and I could smell it on my skin, and I felt that I had absorbed a part of Sri Lanka’s rich history by helping to harvest this humble, unforgettable spice. (Trekurious together with DailyFT explores Sri Lanka for the curious traveller. Trekurious works with talented individuals and great brands to create amazing experiential tours, activities, and events in Sri Lanka. You can find out more at www.Trekurious.com.)