When I was little and feeling unwell, my mother would make me a bowl of porridge sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon. To this day, I make it for myself when I’m under the weather – healthy, comforting and evocative of a time when I didn’t have to worry about myself, when my parents would make anything bad go away.
Our emotional reaction to things we see, taste and smell governs a lot of the way we live. The limbic system in our brain, which processes scents, is also tied in with memories and emotions, which is why aromas are such a powerful trigger.
A few years ago my hubby and I were on a British Airways airplane across the Atlantic, not far from the galley where the meals were prepared by the attendants. Abruptly there was a smell so was so repulsive and toxic that it immediately triggered my flight response – I frantically wanted to escape from the plane. Digging around in my purse for anything I could find, I tried to block the smell while my hubby called over the nearest attendant. It turned out to be some kind of food packaging that, when heated up, gave off an aroma so noxious (to me at least) that it actually made me panic, something that never happens to me.
I’m very sensitive to scents and I’m not sure anyone else on the plane reacted the way I did – my hubby certainly didn’t – but the attendant apologized and said they’d make sure it didn’t happen again. Completely seriously, I said to hubby that I never wanted to smell that aroma again. I’ve never experienced anything like that since, thank goodness.
It seems the emotional pathway in our brains can process large amounts of information more quickly than the rational part. Houses that smell good when we enter them make us feel relaxed and cozy – if something tasty is cooking, the place must be welcoming and safe. Other smells serve as a warning, of harmfulness and danger.
One of my favourite memories from our trip to Ireland is a small one – a roadside stop for tea and a cinnamon bun. Hubby and I were driving from Belfast on the east coast of Northern Ireland all the way across to the west coast, a leg of several hours’ duration. The weather was fine and the drive pleasant, but there wasn’t much around apart from lots of pretty scenery. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, we came across a small roadside food truck, offering tea and coffee along with the buns and chocolate brownies. There was a picnic table handy, so we took a short time-out to enjoy cups of steaming-hot tea and possibly the best cinnamon buns we’ve ever had – pillowy soft, not too sweet and just the right amount of spice – in the warm sunlight and fresh air of the Irish countryside, with a great view to boot.
Marketers have found that a multi-sensory experience is one of the most effective tools they have to create an ‘unforgettable’ customer experience, and canny bricks-and-mortar shops generally use it. My favourite grocery stores are smaller, have dark ceilings and lots of wood to induce a cozy atmosphere, have hot prepared food near the entrance where it smells really good, and make displays of fresh produce, baked goods, cheeses and meats look very enticing.
So what is it about cinnamon that makes it so appealing? And it has been, for thousands of years. It was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BC, where it was used to embalm mummies and to make kyphi, an aromatic incense burned for both religious and medical purposes. It’s mentioned in the Bible for perfuming clothes, bedding and anointing oil.
In ancient Rome, a pound of cinnamon was worth from 125 denarii and higher; to put that in perspective, the average agricultural labourer at the time earned 25 denarii per day. Fortunately it’s more affordable to we ‘plebeians’ today 😉 However, the infamously out-of-control emperor Nero apparently burned a year’s worth of the city’s supply of cinnamon at his wife’s funeral, establishing himself firmly as a forerunner of today’s one-percenters.
Its source was kept a secret for centuries by those in the spice trade to protect their monopoly, but it was believed to come from Arabia, along with myrrh and labdanum (a sticky brown resin from a species of rock rose), where it was supposedly guarded by winged serpents and harvested by ‘cinnamon birds’ who collected the quills to build their nests with. Even in the Middle Ages the source of cinnamon remained a mystery to the Western world. Ferdinand Magellan was searching for spices on behalf of Spain in the 1500s and found a variety of cinnamon in the Philippines, and the race to acquire and control spices was on.
What’s called true cinnamon is native to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Another variety, Cinnamomum cassia (cassia) is native to parts of Asia with warm climates, including Vietnam, China and Indonesia and Vietnam. For the average baker, it’s very similar in taste and works well when heated, although apparently it should properly be sold as Cassia.
Cinnamon is obtained from the thick bark of an evergreen tree. Cut stems are processed immediately after harvesting while the inner bark is still wet. The outer bark is scraped off and the branch is beaten with a hammer to loosen the inner bark, which is then stripped off in long pieces that curl as they dry into the tight rolls we end up buying.
The aroma and flavour of cinnamon derives from the principal component, an essential oil that contains the chemical cinnamaldehyde. Like tea, cinnamon is graded by the size of the final pieces.
The oil has antiseptic, antimicrobial, antioxidant and healing properties. It’s been used medicinally for thousands of years, and recent research backs up what the early healers knew.
Cinnamon is loaded with powerful antioxidants, including polyphenols, so much so that it can even be used as a natural food preservative. Studies are also showing that it has anti-inflammatory properties, can reduce blood pressure when consumed consistently for at least 8 weeks (much more fun than the medication so many of us take), can lower blood sugar levels and may even be able to reduce insulin resistance to help with diabetes. There are numerous other promising health benefits for humans, just as the bark of the willow tree gave us one of our earliest analgesics, aspirin.
Psychologically, the aroma of cinnamon has a calming and soothing effect, inducing feelings of warmth and comfort. It’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. A brain imaging expert studied reactions to cinnamon smells on an fMRI scanner, and found that cinnamon scents stimulated the region in her volunteers’ brains responsible for emotional engagement. Aromatherapists believe that smelling cinnamon can help improve mood, energy level and concentration.
As a writer trying to invoke those feelings through words, I might refer to a warm, cinnamon-scented kitchen, or a tray with a pot of tea and lushly-frosted cinnamon rolls.
One massively-successful food purveyor has built its entire business around the popularity and emotional appeal of cinnamon: Cinnabon. There used to be one of their kiosks at our local mall, and you couldn’t miss its location as it wafted the smell throughout its adjacent concourse.
That wasn’t by accident. Cinnabon goes out of its way to make sure that you can smell their product as you walk by. It even uses a specific type of cinnamon, narrowed down by extensive testing, which grows only in one region of Indonesia at high elevation. The Korintjie region produces a particularly strong version of cinnamon, less sweet than other kinds, that also works in savory foods. They use it to create a proprietary blend called Makara, which is very strong. To increase the potency, Cinnabon doesn’t grind the spice until it reaches U.S. soil.
In addition, the Cinnabon shops place the oven towards the front, bake more rolls at least every 30 minutes to keep the aroma ever-present, and even use the weakest fume hoods legally possible to allow more of the smell to escape into the air.
Our local Cinnabon left the mall a number of years ago. I’m not sure why, but for myself I found the heavy aromas somewhat overpowering. But I believe the company is still doing very well. Today my hubby and I were out getting some shopping done, and I picked up a huge frosted cinnamon roll at our local Farm Boy grocery; it’s a new produce so I thought we’d share one to see how we liked it. A quick 15 seconds in the microwave gave the big bun just enough warmth to soften it and turn the frosting into a molten cream. With a hot tea, it was quite delicious, if perhaps a bit on the sweet side for our tastes. I’m certain we’ll have more whenever we need a little energy boost after a busy afternoon.
Cinnamon is one of those intense, highly atmospheric aromas and tastes that we’ve all grown up with and still love. Whether it makes us think of soothing rice pudding, a redolent apple pie on a cold day, a spicy and savory Moroccan tagine, or Christmas baking, it’s a spice that makes us feel good (when not overdone).
Stay tuned for more posts looking at different aromas, the memories they bring up and the emotions they generate.
Any photos taken by me may not be used without my express permission.