National Cinnamon Training Academy – Sri Lanka
“The one and only cinnamon academy in the world”
Historians generally agree that Sri Lanka is a prominent cradle of the ancient spice trade, and regarding cinnamon which originated in Sri Lanka, it is the predominant cradle.
History reveals that spice traders from Arabia regularly travelled to Sri Lanka to trade in cinnamon long before the 7th century. Cinnamon has also been found in archaeological digs in Egypt where it was used as an embalming agent more than two thousand years ago.
Incredibly there are also Biblical writings (Proverbs 7, 16 – 19) about cinnamon being used as fragrance in Jerusalem sometime between the 3rd and 4th millennium BC.
Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama in 1498 (and on into the early 16th century) is most credited with charting a sea route from Europe to Sri Lanka, and his success in discovering the abundance of cinnamon on the island led to a Portuguese invasion of Sri Lanka in 1536.
The Portuguese later signed a treaty between Portugal and Sri Lanka that included a tribute of 110,000 pounds of cinnamon paid each year to Portugal by the Sinhalese King.
One hundred years later the Dutch captured Sri Lanka from the Portuguese and were the first to systematically cultivate cinnamon.
Although Sri Lanka has lost much of its exoticism as a spice island, the cultivation and harvesting of cinnamon has continued somewhat the same as it was during the Dutch occupation. Today cinnamon represents about sixty per cent of all spices exported from Sri Lanka.
Realizing the dominance of cinnamon as an export crop, and its importance in a strategy to quadruple spice exports over the next seven years, the Government of Sri Lanka – department of Minor Export Crops, established a National Cinnamon Training Academy near Matara on the South Coast of the island.
The academy is one of a kind, the only cinnamon academy in the world, even maybe entitled to enter the Guinness book of records.
The Spice Journal was provided with a tour of this unique academy in late September 2013 at a time when the sap was running and cinnamon peeling was at its seasonable peak.
Our tour was hosted by The Export Development Board and led by the Director General, Mrs Sujatha Weerakoon, and Assistant Director, Ms Inoka Wanasinghe.
The academy familiarization was directed by Mr Ruwansira a Development Officer of the adjoining research station. He requested that we remove our shoes before guided us through the entire centre explaining every function along the way.
It was a Saturday and most of the student body had the weekend off, however we were shown photos of several previous batches of students wearing uniforms and head coverings, all smiles as they were photographed in various stages of cinnamon peeling and quilling.
The academy trains male and female students not only in the art of cinnamon peeling but also in hygiene, reminding them that cinnamon processing is part of the food processing industry throughout Sri Lanka.
Upon graduation each student is presented with a diploma which will prove their qualifications for employment in the industry.
Mr Ruwansira demonstrated several sequences of the training which are devoted to hygiene, showing us two washing vats where the cinnamon saplings are washed and rinsed and demonstrating how the cinnamon trees never again touch the ground or the floor.
After washing, the saplings are put on roller tables and conveyed into the peeling area and on to individual work stations where the outer bark is scraped off and discarded, and the inner bark is skilfully peeled and quilled.
We were then taken to the adjoining government owned cinnamon plantation where our trainer selected and harvested a cinnamon tree about two inches in diameter and brought it back to the academy where he processed it step by step just like the students are taught.
Mr Ruwansira modestly explained to us that he was not one of the more skilled cinnamon peelers but in absence of the experts he was happy to lead us through a demonstration. To us Mr Ruwansira seemed very skilful, it was only after visit to a private plantation where skilled cinnamon peelers were at work that we realised the difference.
Unfortunately at the privately owned plantation, although though the cinnamon peelers were artfully skilled there was an obvious absence of hygiene. It left us wondering whether their workers were even aware that they are working in a food processing centre.
Our director explained that all peelers, even those who are inherently skilled, would to be trained in the Academy with particular emphasis on the hygiene aspects of processing food.
The tour of the academy was gratifying, not only to realize that it will help to sustain a trained workforce in an industry that has a labour shortage, but also its emphasis on hygiene which should leave the students with knowledge that spice processing has to meet international expectations of cleanliness.
The Sri Lanka Department of Export agriculture should be commended for the unique initiative.