Long ago, it drove exploration to the new world. It was fought for, bought and traded at exorbitant prices and was seen as a rarity only the most wealthy could afford.
Now, we sprinkle it everywhere, as common as salt.
Let’s talk cinnamon.
This time of year, cinnamon is on the forefront of our grocery selections and so readily available it’s almost easy to get bored of. In day and age where products can be shipped worldwide in a matter of mere days, cinnamon doesn’t seem so much like a luxury.
But back in the 15th century, explorers were embarking upon treacherous voyage to get their hand on cinnamon. (Which, essentially, is bark. People sailed ’round the world for bark.)
In fact, during the spice trade Arab sellers would tell extravagant tall tales to their buyers to explain and maintain their exorbitantly high prices. For example, a one such tale (as told by 5th century Greek historian Herodotus) featured giant birds who carried cinnamon sticks to their nests, high upon mountains that no human could climb. In order to obtain the cinnamon, villagers would put ox meat below the nests. When the birds brought the meat to their nests, the weight would cause the nest to fall, allowing the cinnamon to be collected at the bottom upon its crash landing.
Personally, I find the most romantic tall tale to be that told by Pliny the Elder, who claimed cinnamon came from far-flung Ethiopia on oarless rafts with no sails powered “by man alone and his courage.”
Nowadays it’s hard to imagine cinnamon being so rare and valuable. No one needs to sail to the farthest ends of the earth to find it — we can pick it up in jars any time we want.
However, the bulk mass we find is usually Cassia, which is a similar spice with a headier, spicier, stronger scent and flavor, found mainly in Indonesia. The good stuff, which is mellow, sweet and worth globetrotting for is Ceylon, originally discovered in Sri Lanka in the early 15th century (which saved Sri Lanka’s local economy and made them all rich.)
And, of course, we use it for pies and lattes and breads and French toast. Using cinnamon for anointing oil, embalming fluid and covering the taste of rancid meat is far less common these days.
Next time you take a bite of a cinnamon roll or sip a seasonal coffee drink, take a second to appreciate what it took to reach your lips. It was fought for, over terrifying briny seas and storms and given only to the most wealthy. We are incredibly lucky, in their eyes, to have our hands on something so precious. Cinnamon may no longer be “found” (or claimed to be found) in deep canyons guarded by large snakes, but its common place in our society has lessened its rarity.
In celebration of cinnamon, here’s an easy, seasonal recipe for apple cinnamon French toast. It is perhaps a recipe that has Westernized the glory of cinnamon lore, but when made with intention will prove to be the best French toast you’ve ever had.
As is common with recipes of this simplicity, what makes it great is the quality of ingredients used. I would recommend using high quality butter (I’m fond of Kerrygold, personally) and a loaf of multigrain bread that was baked fresh but sat overnight and staled slightly. Ideally, fresh local fruit and quality Ceylon cinnamon would make an appearance.
I know this isn’t an ideal kind of world and not everyone can drop five bucks on a block of Irish butter, so I can guarantee it will be delicious regardless of the bread you use. But, if I’m being honest, everything will taste better on an overcast fall morning when you take your time to get the pan nice and hot and use Madagascar vanilla. (Maybe that’s just me?)
Anyway, in honor of cinnamon, the recipe is as follows.
Apple Cinnamon French Toast
- Several slices of multigrain bread
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 c milk
- 1 t cinnamon
- 1/4 t vanilla
- 1 pear
- 1 apple
- 1/4c sugar
- 1 t cinnamon
- 1 t nutmeg
- 2 T butter
2. Dice the apple and pear into small pieces. In a small saucepan, melt 1 tsp butter. Add apple and pear, cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add sugar and spices, cook until sugar has turned into a sweet glaze for the fruit but has not yet caramelized, about 2 minutes. Turn off heat. Keep warm while prepping toast.
3. Slice your bread to desired thickness. Dunk into egg/milk mix, coating evenly and allowing excess to drip. In a wide pan over medium heat or using a griddle, melt butter to grease your pan.
4. Cook toast until golden brown. Flip.
5. Serve toast hot off the pan topped with the apple/pear compote. If desired, top with whipped cream.
Bonus Points: Top with toasted walnuts for extra fall depth and crunch.
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