Sunday, May 25, 2014


While reading about the United East Indies Company ("Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie") I stouted upon a sentence which quirked me:

"Een vadem is de spanwijdte van de armen van een niet te kleine volwassen man."
['A fathom is the spanwidth of the arms of a not too small adult man.']

Followed by:

"De waterdiepte werd vanouds gemeten door lood aan een touw in het water te laten zakken. Daarna werd het touw tussen de uitgestrekte armen afgepast ("opvamen")."
['The waterdepth was per old custom measured by a letting lead attached to a rope sink into the water. Afterwards the rope was gauged between the outstretched arms.']

This is fascinating! I had forgotten entirely that Dutch also used to measure in fathoms. That unit of length has faded from consciousness since the great age of colonial exploitation.

Not too small adult men are useful.

Or were, back in the day.

But I was actually more intrigued by the trail of fragrances left across the internet by the spice trade, in which for centuries the Dutch were both brutal and astute.

[The connection between the VOC (Verenigde Ooostindische Compagnie) and fathoms is 'coir', by the way. It's a stout fibre much used for rope. Arab sailors had rigging made of coir, and it's further usage in the tropics defined a way of life, along with bamboo, rattan, and resinous hardwoods used for incense.]


The attentive reader of history will remember that after conquering Ceylon from the Portuguese in 1658, Dutch trade in cinnamon and elephants expanded enormously. Elephants nowadays don't have much commercial currency, but cinnamon has remained a popular product, and is probably more in use than ever before.

There are four primary species:

Cinnamomum burmannii: Indonesian cinnamon.

Cinnamomum cassia: Chinese cinnamon.

Cinnamomum loureiroi: Vietnamese cinnamon.

Cinnamomum verum: Ceylon cinnamon.

Ceylon cinnamon is perhaps the best, based on texture (thin and multi-layered bark, that crumbles or pulvers easily), fragrance, and amounts of various aromatic chemicals, particularly cinnamaldehyde and coumarin. The first one named, cinnamaldehyde, is anti-fungal, anti-microbial, and anti-cancerous. It's level of toxicity is quite low. Coumarin, on the other hand -- present in lowest amount in Ceylon cinnamon, highest in cinnamomum cassia, is a flavour enhancer, working primarily on the olfactory level, as well as an appetite suppressant, but mildly hepatoxic (damaging to the liver). Consequently it is now not as desirable as before, when it was commonly used in perfumes, the tobacco industry, candies, and the alcoholic beverage industry. On the other hand, coumarin is also anti-HIV, anti-tumor, anti-hypertensive, anti-arrhythmic, anti-inflammatory, anti-osteoporotic, antiseptic, and analgesic.

Both cinnamaldehyde and coumarin are oil-soluble, which explains why they are used in fragrant oils (and again, note their therapeutic properties), but more importantly sheds light on how cinnamon is used in South and South-East Asian cooking: often added while tempering the onions and other bases in a hot pan with oil or ghee.


Both are also soluble in an equal volume of pure alcohol, or twice as much 70% alcohol. In pharmacology these were prescribed for, among other things, flatulence.

Many products from the Orient were first desirable as medicinal ingredients, before they were ever used culinarily or as beverages. Cinnamon, though still considered a potent tonic in the Far East, is now merely a cheap and strong flavouring agent, whose pharmacopœic properties are largely ignored.

Perhaps the strangest use is in liquor as the primary taste contributor. Previously playing a distinctly third fiddle role in gin ('Genever') and various French nasties, it is now used right up front in a strange Canadian compound popular for shots among the young.

It also kills mouth germs.

Other cinnamonic chemical components are methoxycinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate, camphor, vanillin, cadinene, salicysaldehyde, borneol, terpineol, and many others so forth. You undoubtedly recognize the flavour-smell connections of those words.


The foundation of Dutch wealth in the eastern seas was based on spices: pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. To protect their fleets, the East Indies company outfitted their ships with canon, and to seize territory from the Portuguese, they armed their soldiers very well.

Their attempts to seize control over the sources of cinnamon were successful; they ruled Ceylon from 1658 till 1796. By the time the British took over, Ceylon's importance as a supplier of magic bark had faded, the island's real importance was strategic.

And by that time, the Dutch had lost their obsession with spices.

The modern Dutch market still has the products of empire, but spices have been relegated to a minor section, though the food manufacturing industries could not survive without them.
Elephants, once so prized, feature not at all.

On the other hand, the English went to the Far East primarily for Tea and Rhubarb. The first is a stimulant, which has the added benefit of forcing one to boil water, making it drinkable, where previously the inhabitants of the British Isles had perforce swilled ale and bad wine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ending up swozzled by the time teatime rolled around.
The second is a very efficient laxative, perhaps quite a bit more important than tea, given what British food was like.

Both British and Dutch cuisine have improved considerably.

I wonder what we did with all those elephants.

They probably tasted delicious.

Note: this essay brought to you by caffeine hitting the adenosine receptors and the natural excitatory neurotransmitters in the system. For smokers, it takes only half as long for the effect to wear off than for non-smokers; so by nine-thirty slash ten o'clock, I should be normal again.
You won't. Just thought you should know.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

No comments:

Search This Blog


Important disclaimer or whatever: Because I am Dutch American, neurotic, and somewhere on the spectrum (Aspergers syndrome is quite common a...