I went shopping the other day at our lovely local bulk foods store. We were running dismally low on such necessities of life as dried beans, rolled oats, and large chunks of chocolate, so the situation had to be remedied. Besides, Christmas is coming up, and it was imperative that I lay in the required supplies. One of the things I love about the bulk food store is the way it smells; they sell spices and other delectables from open bins with just a loose lid on them, so the scent permeates the whole shop. As it did my car, on the half-hour drive home.
This, dear people, is a bag of cinnamon. A one-kilogram bag of cinnamon. For those of you in the US, that's two-point-two pounds. And what I paid for it is $4.97. Four Canadian dollars, and ninety-seven cents. For those of you in Europe, that's about €3.55. For those of you in the US, that's $4.97. And for everyone else, that's just plain ridiculous.
You see, it was snowing that day as I was driving home, inhaling cinnamon scents all the way. Cold, white, soft flakes of snow. Temperatures just around the freezing point. And no, that's not terribly unusual here for this time of year, even though, contrary to what you might think, I do not live in an igloo year-round, and my car moves on tires, not sled runners. (I live in Canada, not next door to Father Christmas and the North Polar Bear. Just sayin'.) But, my point is I'm driving home, through the snow, with a one-kilo bag of cinnamon in the car that I paid five bucks for.
For the last few years around Christmas, the local educational TV station has been broadcasting this very interesting show called "A Tudor Feast at Christmas" (ooh, very cool, you can watch it for free here!). A team of English historians dress up in outfits from the late 16th century, go to an old manor house, and spend three days preparing a meal like the highest rungs of the social ladder in Elizabethan England would expect to be fed at a Christmas celebration. They use only the technology, ingredients and methods that would have been used at the time; and talk to the camera about how much bloomin' work it is to grind almonds for marzipan in a mortar and pestle instead of using a food processor. Now that's my kind of reality television!
So one of the blurbs that really stuck with me is where this food historian talks about cinnamon. He says, if I recall correctly, that cinnamon was nearly as precious as gold in those days - if not more so. Say, an English merchant outfitted three whole sailing ships, vessel, crew, supplies, everything, and sent those three ships off to the Spice Islands. He waits a full year for their return. Two of the ships are lost entirely, sunk off the coast of India in a storm. Just one of the ships makes it back to the cooler climates of Europe, its cargo hold loaded with the little fragrant brown sticks. That merchant, in spite of having lost two-thirds of an enormous investment, has just made his fortune for life.
Countries where it can snow in November are constitutionally incapable of growing cinnamon, so they have to bring it from elsewhere, from the far-away exotic shores of hot climates. Cinnamon, by rights, should be expensive around here. I have a feeling that my one-kilo bag of cinnamon, finely ground and powdery, probably equates to a wealthy person's yearly income by 1597's standards. But in case you were wondering, $4.97 doesn't go very far in today's Canada. In fact, it's only about twice of what I might pay for an equivalent weight in apples, which I could have picked from the trees in the orchard down the street a few months ago.
I wonder if the price on whole roasted peacock with the skin put back on, presented at the table in all its peacocky splendour, is going to go through a similar price drop anytime soon?
Life, the Universe and Cinnamon. Steve says he's looking forward to gingerbread.