Back in the mists of time, cinnamon toast was my rare breakfast treat. Toasted white bread (it was almost always white in those days), buttered and sprinkled with a mixture of powdered cinnamon and white sugar was permitted once a week.
I can still remember the crunch of sugar, the exotic tang of cinnamon evoking tropical forests, the distinct flavours and textures. The spice was also familiar for its starring role in cinnamon buns – plump, yeasty scrolls of fresh bread baked with layers of cinnamon and glazed with sugar frosting.
Decades passed. I became aware that cinnamon was tree bark, and bought neat quills of it in glass jars to stir the Christmas egg nog. When I moved to Ubud I began to see cinnamon bark in the market, long untidy rolls of it up to 70 cm long. But it was only recently I learned the story of cinnamon.
Most of Indonesia’s cinnamon comes from Sumatra, and most of that is taken from mature trees which are cut down to harvest the inner bark. Sumatran cinnamon trees are mostly found in the lush Kerincis Valley near the national park; there are thousands of hectares of them in the area.
The smallholder farmers often plant cinnamon trees before they marry so the spice will help pay for their children’s education. They use a mixed cropping technique, planting chili and coffee saplings at the same time as cinnamon. The chili is harvested several times a year and the coffee begins to bear in three or four years. Coffee does well in the shade of the growing cinnamon trees which are thinned out in seven to ten years so the remainder have space to grow larger. The bark from the young trees is sold and this is the only profit until the mature trees are harvested in about 20 years when they are 15 metres tall.
No chemicals are used in the cultivation of cinnamon and the trees are replaced with young ones when they are cut. The mature plantations create a habitat for wildlife, but because cinnamon is often planted on top of hills where the land is cheaper, erosion occurs when the trees are cut down. One big tree might yield 50 or 60 kg of bark after 20 years.
At the current farm gate price of Rp 45,000/kg, that is only Rp 2,700,000 return on a 20 year investment – about $US 10 a year. And the present price is high; five years ago it was only Rp 8,000/kg. Cinnamon is mostly grown by smallholder farmers and sold to consolidators because the growers have no direct market access, which means that the bulk of the profit is taken by middlemen. I was unable to discover whether the wood was sold as a byproduct; often these areas are remote from roads and it would be difficult to move the timber out.
Tripper, a French family company with roots in Indonesia, is helping spice farmers in Indonesia by guaranteeing a market and teaching them to improve their product so they can obtain a better price. The Tripper brothers had worked in Indonesia and recognized the potential of the spice trade. They wanted to add value at origin, not just for end consumers but to benefit farmers and employees along the supply chain. The brothers established relationships with growers on several islands and built two processing sites, one in Jakarta dedicated to spice grinding and a Bali plant focused on liquid extracts.
Tripper obtained ISO 22000 certification in 2001 and prioritised sustainable sourcing. In 2001 it received its first organic certification for cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and cloves. Processing and packaging is done in Jakaarta to ensure maximum quality. Tripper is now a thriving international spice business with 150 employees. It maintains long term relationships with traditional growers who were previously selling to consolidators. Tripper helps the growers achieve organic certification and Fair Trade status. The bark is cut and dried on site and then sent to the Tripper facility in Jakarta. Here the spice is either powdered, broken into pieces or cut into sticks before being shipped around the world.
Aurele Mahieu, a French agricultural engineer working with Tripper, recently spent three months helping to train cinnamon farmers in Sumatra about organic production. “It was difficult to reach as many as we would have liked,” he told me. “There are 1000 members in the cinnamon co-op, and thousands of hectares under cinnamon cultivation. We were able to visit and train just 60 of them due to the distances and difficult terrain.” Previously Aurele had been on similar projects in Madagascar and Haiti.
Cinnamon has been a commercial commodity for about 4,000 years. It was used to embalm bodies in ancient Egypt, to flavour wine in ancient Rome and as an offering at the temple of Apollo. These days it’s used as a baking spice, in savoury Middle Eastern and North African dishes, to flavour everything from breakfast foods to toothpaste and teas.
There are two types of cinnamon. Cinnamomum verum or true cinnamon is mostly produced in Sri Lanka. Cinnamomum cassia or Chinese cassia is more commonly available and about 75% of the world’s commercial cinnamon is grown in Indonesia and China. The bark of the more expensive true cinnamon is more delicate and its chemistry is different, which affects the medicinal properties.
The distinct smell and flavor of cinnamon are due to the oily component which is very high in the compound cinnamaldehyde. Scientists believe this is responsible for most of cinnamon’s powerful effects on health and metabolism.
Medical research shows that cinnamon is antioxident, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal, may reduce high cholesterol and blood pressure, lower blood sugar levels in Type 2 Diabetes and may inhibit neurodegenerative diseases. But do your research before you hit the cinnamon jar; the Cassia variety grown in Sumatra contains significant amounts of a compound called coumarin which may be harmful in large doses.
I occasionally make cinnamon toast these days, with artisanal sourdough, buttered and sprinkled with Sumatran cinnamon mixed with powdered red palm sugar. This contemporary take on the old classic hasn’t lost its magic. I can still taste the exotic tropical forest, but now I can picture the tree, the harvest and the journey of cinnamon to my kitchen.
By Ibu Kat
Copyright © 2019 Greenspeak
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Ibu Kat’s book of stories
Bali Daze – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail and Retired, Rewired – Living Without Adult
Supervision in Bali are available from Ganesha Books and on Kindle