The old man sits on the step, a stick in one hand and a blade in the other. As he scrapes the bark, the shavings fall onto the mat by his hip. “Compost,” he says, brushing the green-brown curls aside.
Next, he takes up a brass bar, rubbing it up and down the stick to soften it. With a small knife, he scores two horizontal lines in the bark and, in one nimble movement, peels the outer layer away from the wood.
He then tosses the inner stick aside (it would later be firewood) and presents the precious, curve of fresh skin. “Cinnamon,” he says, his eyes creasing into a smile. It smells earthy and, when I chew a piece, tastes surprisingly sweet.
Layers of this inner bark are wrapped inside one another until they form a roll – to be stored on twine in the shade. Left for a week, the rolls grow dark and brittle, turning into cinnamon sticks ready for market.
I’ve come to a tiny island on Koggala Lake, in Sri Lanka’s deep south, to meet Sarath, the cinnamon cultivator, so he can show me the tricks of his trade. Cinnamon has been big business in Sri Lanka since the 16th century, when the Portuguese arrived and gained a monopoly on the spice trade — and the country remains one of the world’s leading suppliers, specialising in high-quality Ceylon cinnamon.
As he walks me around his garden of coconut trees, lemongrass and vines of peppercorn, Sarath tells me his family are the island’s only inhabitants. His father taught him how to cultivate cinnamon — and now Sarath can peel a metre-long stick in just two minutes.
As we walk, cinnamon leaves crunch underfoot, releasing the smell of spice. Every part of the tree is used, Sarath explains, including the leaves, which are distilled into aromatherapy oil to remedy everything from headaches to arthritis.
It’s this warm and heady scent that greeted me when I arrived at Tri, the sustainable luxury resort that organised my trip to ‘cinnamon island’ (20 minutes away by boat). The 11-room hotel makes much of the fact that it’s located in the Sri Lanka’s cinnamon heartland. The fragrance of the spice drifts from oil burners in the glass-walled villas; the spa’s massage oils are made using it; and in the restaurant flavours curries and granola with it.
But it doesn’t end there: the six-acre garden of tea bushes and frangipani is dotted with cinnamon trees, their bright green leaves fanning out in the sunlight, while the villas feature cinnamon stick exteriors, which are both aesthetically pleasing and functional, offering privacy and regulating temperature.
The garden’s central feature is a 120ft water tower, clad in — you guessed it — cinnamon sticks, like those tossed aside by Sarath for firewood. But cinnamon aside, it’s a handy place for a sundowner, and from the tower’s roof terrace, I watch pink light puddle on the lake below, the sun casting its final rays on that tiny, distant island where the cinnamon grows.