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Cinnamon is probably one of the first spices known to man. This slightly bitter sweet spice had such a strong hold on the people, that it was often considered sacred, and only fit for divine sacrifice. One example of this was how a blend of cinnamon and incense was used for the funeral pyre of Roman Emperor Nero's Poppaea. In fact, so much cinnamon was used during this overt display of piety and grief, that it depleted the entire Roman supply for a whole year.
There are actually two kinds of cinnamon that we use in our cooking today. True cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum according to scientists, or Ceylon cinnamon as it is commonly known, is actually the most rare and expensive kind of cinnamon available. Ceylon cinnamon actually only makes up about 1% of the world's total supply of cinnamon. When most people think of cinnamon, what they are actually thinking about is Cassia, which the scientists call Cinnamomum lauriiy. Cassia actually makes up the vast majority of the worlds "good" cinnamon supply.
Both cinnamon and cassia belong to the laurel genus of evergreen trees and are considered the first true sweet spices. Cinnamon and cassia trees are beautiful looking evergreen trees that come in all kinds of unique shapes and sizes. Unlike most other spices though, it is not the fruit or seeds of these plants that are used. Rather it is the bark of the tree which is utilized as a spice. When looking at the finished, processed product of Ceylon cinnamon you will notice a light tan color, and a relatively delicate flavor.
While Mexico insists that it has true Ceylon cinnamon, the vast majority of what is used throughout the world is found to come from Vietnam, China, and Indonesia. The best quality cassia (which is what most countries produce) has a strong color and flavor, which is usually preferred. This is particularly true since cassia is in greater supply, and consequently cheaper to obtain. When trying to decide which is best between cinnamon and cassia, most people will use the level of essential oils, and flavor found in the bark. Typically the higher percentage of essential oil content is, then the better the quality of cassia. The highest quality cassia can actually be found from the Saigon region of Vietnam, which has the closest essential oil content to Ceylon cinnamon—3.5 percent.
Whether it is Ceylon cinnamon or cassia that you prefer, choose the best quality you can when baking. These spices will enhance the taste, and produce a wonderful effect for just about any dish. Try a little on your next slice of apple pie, ice cream, coffee, or hot chocolate. Add a little to chili for a unique flavor twist. Simply put, experiment a little, and enjoy your self!