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Harvesting ‘true cinnamon’: The story of the Ceylon spice

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A worker stuffs cinnamon barks with small cuttings of the bark called quillings to make one 42-inch cinnamon quill [Al Jazeera]

Considered the world’s best cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon has been grown and produced in Sri Lanka for generations. But experienced peelers are now rare, says a report by Al Jazeera.

It said: It is 9am in the Carlton estate in Thihagoda, a small town about 160km (100 miles) south of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, and the July sun hides behind inky clouds. The air is thick and hot. Two men walk to the main estate building carrying piles of cinnamon branches. Inside, a group of women sit on the cement floor, chatting as they peel cinnamon.

Since 2000, workers here have planted, harvested and peeled cinnamon, sending batches of the fragrant sticks to a factory in Kamburupitiya, a 15-minute drive away, where they are cut, packed and loaded onto shipping containers for export.

Cinnamon harvesting usually takes place from June to December when the monsoon skies burst into downpours. But here at Rathna Producers Cinnamon Exports, it is produced throughout the year on the 42-acre (17 hectares) estate. “When we are done harvesting one acre, the next acre is ready,” says Chamara Lakshith, 28, the estate’s visiting officer, whose job involves coordinating between the estate and the main office in Kamburupitiya. “But sometimes for a few weeks, the bark is so hard that you can’t peel cinnamon. We know it by looking at the trees; young leaves turn striking red.”

The family business that began in 1985 is run by Ravindu Runage, whose late father started in the cinnamon trade with 7,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($35) to buy cinnamon from small farmers and sell it to bigger traders.

Now, Runage says the company is one of the largest cinnamon producers in Sri Lanka, exporting cinnamon and other spices like nutmeg and black pepper to 56 countries. Apart from growing organic cinnamon, the company also sources it from 8,000 individual and small-scale farmers and exports more than 30 containers of cinnamon a month.

“We grew up with cinnamon,” says 36-year-old Runage, at his office in Kamburupitiya, surrounded by several industry awards his family has won over the years. “We lived in a two-bedroom house. We slept in one room. In the other room, my thaththa [father] stored cinnamon.”

Once they were in the business, the Runage family learned that Mexico is one of the biggest cinnamon consumers. “So thaththa learned English and visited Mexico in 1998 to find a buyer,” says Runage. “But they spoke Spanish. So thaththa sent his business cards to companies he found in a telephone book.”

“Five months later, we sold our first container of cinnamon to Mexico.”

There are two types of cinnamon in the Western market: Ceylon cinnamon (named after the title British colonisers gave to Sri Lanka) and cassia. Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka; it has a lush, inviting scent and a sweet taste, and its quills are soft and light brown in colour. Cassia comes from other Asian countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam; its bark is sturdy with a rough texture, it is dark brown in colour and is stronger and hotter in taste. Cassia is considered lower quality, while Ceylon often triumphs as the pure, “true cinnamon”.

The process of producing this cinnamon includes several laborious, time-consuming steps. This is also why Ceylon cinnamon is expensive in the market while cassia is cheap, Runage says.

At the estate, seeds are planted in grow bags. After one year, saplings are cultivated. Harvesting begins four years later.

For harvesting, farmers cut down the branches of cinnamon trees at an angle, which allows cinnamon bushes to regrow, Lakshith says. Young and tender twigs are thrown away. Once branches are soaked in water and are moist enough, peelers remove the outermost layer of the cinnamon bark. To produce thin cinnamon quills, they spend hours stripping off the inner bark of the cinnamon branch in sheets.

Once produced, Ceylon cinnamon quills are graded based on their width; the thinner the quills, the higher they are in value. Alba is the highest form of cinnamon, with a diameter of 6mm. H1 is a lower grade of cinnamon, with a diameter of 22mm. In the export market, Alba costs twice as much as H1.

With a hearty smile, Suduhakuru Piyathilake holds a large batch of cinnamon quills. Piyathilake and his wife have been living in an old, dilapidated house next to the estate’s main building for 10 years now.

At 5am every day, Piyathilake heads off to the plantation. After collecting branches from about 15 trees, he plods back to the water tank in the main building, drops them off for soaking and returns to the plantation. He must make several trips back and forth before he begins peeling.

“When it’s moist, it’s easy to peel,” says the 55-year-old. “That’s why we cut them early in the morning and soak them.”

When the clock hits 10am, Piyathilake comes back with the last batch. After five hours, he has collected the branches of 200 trees. Sweat trickles down his forehead. A resident kitten swats at his feet, but Piyathilake ignores it and rushes in for a shower.

After a two-hour break, he sharpens his knife by scraping the outer bark of the branch and then he gets to work. “This is what my father and his father did,” he says. “Now my sons are cinnamon peelers.”

Piyathilake has been peeling cinnamon for the last 43 years. He learned the craft from his father in their village in Elpitiya, 70km north of the Runage family estate, where his children live with his mother. At home, cinnamon trees adorn their back yard, Piyathilake says. “But it’s a small garden so we can’t harvest cinnamon every day of the year. We don’t make much money there. So I work here with my wife. We only see our children once in every four months.”

Piyathilake is so adept at work that he can masterfully strip off extremely thin barks of the cinnamon branch by merely measuring them next to his index finger. After peeling the outer bark, he makes two cuts on two opposite sides before peeling off the inner bark. A half a length cut of your smallest bone is for Alba, Piyathilake says. For “rough” or H1 cinnamon quills, Piyathilake uses the length of two bones of his index finger.



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Scotland Police to stop training Lankan cops

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Sujeeva Nivunhella
reporting from London

Concerns over the human rights record in Sri Lanka has led to the halt of the police training contract between the Sri Lanka and Scottish Police, Chief Constable Iain Livingstone of the Scotland Police confirmed.

He said they have written to the British High Commission in Colombo to inform the Sri Lanka government that they are no longer planning to renew the training contract with Sri Lanka’s police force due to end in March next year.

The British Foreign Office reported last week that Sri Lanka’s human rights situation deteriorated during the first half of 2021.

The report said: “Security forces increased their surveillance and intimidation of human rights activists and their use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, with a number of arbitrary arrests.

The government proposed new regulations with powers to arrest and send individuals to rehabilitation centres to be ‘de-radicalised’ with no judicial oversight or requirement for further process.”

News of Scotland’s Police not renewing the contract was welcomed by critics of Sri Lanka including Mercedes Villalba who is a Scottish Labour politician who has been a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for North East Scotland since May 2021.

British MPs and MSPs jointly sent a letter to the Scotland Police and the British High Commission in Sri Lanka a few weeks ago requesting them to stop the training programme.

Villalba was one of the signatories and after this announcement, she said “I have been pleased to support the campaigners and thank them for their tireless efforts in securing the commitment from the chief constable. I also want to thank Police Scotland for being responsive to the real concerns which were expressed about Sri Lanka’s record of human rights violations.”

Talking about the decision to stop training, Chief Constable Livingstone said that a review must be done to accurately reflect the current security and human rights issues in the region, which have changed since the initial deployment after the end of the Civil War in 2010.

“We remain of course committed to supporting the international development of policing services right across the world so that we can enhance and enable human rights and we can underline the values that we hold dear in Police Scotland of integrity, fairness and respect. Those values will always be at the heart of the work we deliver in Scotland and at the heart of everything we do internationally”, he added.

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Interfaith Week celebrated in London

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Sujeeva Nivunhella reporting from London

A Pooja to celebrate Interfaith Week was organized here last week with the advice and guidance of Ven. Bogoda Seelawimala Nayake Thera, head of the London Buddhist Vihara and the Chief Sangha Nayake of Great Britain.

This annual event begins on Remembrance Sunday, a memorial day observed in Commonwealth countries since the end of the World War I to remember armed forces personnel who died in the line of duty. This tradition was inaugurated by King George V in 1919.

Adhering to the country’s Covid guidelines, this year’s celebration was held using Zoom technology on the theme “Altruism in each religion”.

Ven. Seelawimala welcomed everyone who joined the session. Notable participants of the event were Ven. Thawalama Bandula Thera, Ven. Kalugamuwe Kassapa Thera from London Buddhist Vihara, Dr Harriet Crabtree – Director of Interfaith Network, UK, Ranjish Kashyap, General Secretary/Director Hindu Council,UK, Dr. Pujya Samaniji Pratibha Pragya, who is a Jain nun from Harrow, Rev Gyoro Nagase, Japanese monk, London Peace Pagoda, Battersea, Dr Desmond Bidulph – Chairman of Buddhist Society and Charanjith and Ajith Singh MBE, Hounslow Friends of Faith, who represented the Sikhs.

All present chanted prayers according to their own faiths to eradicate human suffering, to have peace and especially to see an end to the pandemic situation in the world.

A pre-recorded video of Devotional Songs by London Buddhist Vihara Dhamma School Children was played at the event.

Interfaith Network – UK was founded in 1987 with representatives from the Buddhist, Bahai, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Islam, Sikh and Zoroastrian communities,

National and local interfaith bodies, academic institutions and educational bodies concerned with inter-religious issues are affiliated to the organization. Then head of the London Buddhist Vihara late, Ven. Dr. Medagama Vajiragnana Nayaka Thera was actively involved in forming the Network and was a founding member.

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Frankfurt Consulate massive white elephant, alleges Lankan living there

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Foreign office looking at closing some overseas mission due to financial constraints

by Harischandra Gunaratna

Sri Lanka’s Consulate in Frankfurt has turned out to be a white elephant although the Sri Lankan government spends a whopping Rs. 200 million per year for its operations, Azad Shaukatally, a businessman and a Sri Lankan expatriate in Frankfurt told the Sunday Island.

“Over the years, this consulate has not contributed anything tangible to the country. All that has happened is successive governments appointing political loyalists to head the Mission. None of them have done anything concrete to promote business between the two countries,” he said.

According to him, the Mission could have contributed a great deal by promoting Sri Lankan exports and tourism as Frankfurt is the business hub of Germany.

“What actually happens is, the Consulate in Frankfurt simply replicates several tasks performed by the Embassy in Berlin and that’s it. But it cost the country exorbitantly without the knowledge of the authorities. This is sheer waste of national resources and it needs to be brought to an end,” Shaukatally said.

When the Sunday Island contacted the Foreign Ministry on the matter, its Acting Director General Sugeeshwara Gunaratna said: “The Foreign Ministry regularly evaluates individual performance of each Sri Lankan mission abroad, and constructively engages with them from time to time on specific issues or matters which are mutually beneficial in promotion of Sri Lanka’s bilateral and multilateral relations with the host country and various international organizations while ensuring best interests of the people of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan citizens living abroad.”

He said that any decisions related to opening of new missions or closure of particular Missions/Posts abroad including the Consulate General in Frankfurt would be taken after wider consultation with relevant stakeholders based on the relevance of each Mission/Post in promotion of Sri Lanka’s relations abroad.

“Under the current financial constraints, the Foreign Ministry is in the process of closing down some of the Sri Lankan Missions/Posts abroad after obtaining the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers. However, no final decision, has so far, been taken with regard to the Missions/Posts which would be closed down in the near future,” Gunaratna said.

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