Homemade Alchermes liqueur
It felt like I was mixing a magic potion. A little bit of this. A little bit of that. A crumbling of some bark, a few seeds. And then the final touch: a couple of spoonfuls of dried insects.
Kermes or cochineal insects are what give this Renaissance-aged Tuscan liqueur it’s distinct colour, and its name. The dried insects infuse the liqueur with a deep, pinkish-red magenta hue and are then strained out, along with the other spices that permeate the liquid. The insects are the source of the natural dye known as carmine, the same natural dye that can also be found in food colouring and make up.
The fact that Alchermes (also written alkermes) gets its name from the cocineal’s Arabic counterpart, kermes, which in turn get its name from the Middle Persian word quermez, meaning bloody, crimson or red, just shows how key this ingredient is to the liqueur.
It’s been made more or less this way since the fifteenth century, when it was a favourite liqueur of the Medici family (so much so that in France is was known as the ‘liqueur of the Medici’) and touted as an elixir for long life. The Santa Maria Novella pharmacy still make their Alchermes to the same recipe that was created in 1743, when the monastery pharmacy began broadening their range of products from perfumes and medicines to alcoholic drinks. Alchermes was still at this time seen as a pick me up, a tonic to revive weary spirits, and did so well in to the next century too.
Today it’s rarely used for drinking – but this should really change, especially if you make it from scratch. As a strong (around 35% alcohol) drink, you might want to try sipping it after a meal like an amaro or dessert wine – but it’s bright colour and sweet spiciness is vital for many Tuscan dessert recipes, from zuccotto to tronco, a sponge roll filled with nutella (and this variation).
Now I know you must be wondering about the insects. You probably have already (unknowingly) come across them. Carmine dye comes from the parasitic cochineal insects found in Mexico and subtropical South America. They like to sit on the wide paddles of prickly pear, where they can be brushed off, individually, and then dried, a labour intensive process that can account for part of its price tag.
In the Near East, kermes insects (which are very similar to the cocineals) were used for their carminic acid, but being a more delicate pigment and not light-fast, Mexican cocineal took over as the most important imported pigment after the New World was discovered in the fifteenth century. This ancient Central American dye was enormously sought after in Europe (the history of its production in Mexico is fascinating), particularly as a fabric dye, but cochineal colouring fell out of favour in the late nineteenth century when much cheaper synthetic pigments were invented.
Before you get squeamish about the idea of using food colouring obtained from infusing insects, consider that it is a natural dye, also known as E 120 on food packaging. It’s synthetic red equivalent, E 124, is a much nastier substance, a known carcinogen that is banned in the US and Norway because of this (but apparently still used in the EU).
I’m still tinkering with this recipe to get it just right before posting the recipe (for now it’s a bit too strong, over 40% alcohol, and a bit darker than usual) and then I’ll be presenting it during a workshop in Florence on December 29 with fellow history-lover, Molly McIlwrath.
I followed a recipe by Paolo Petroni, whose enormous Tuscan cookbook is one of my favourites. Pure alcohol is infused with a heady, aromatic mixture of whole cinnamon, cardamom pods, grated orange zest, star anise, coriander seeds, half a vanilla pod, macis, and a couple of whole cloves. A few grams of dried cocineal insects from the border of Mexico and Texas are added in with the spices and the whole mixture sits for 2 weeks, getting shaken occasionally. After this time, a syrup made from dissolving sugar into cold water, is added and another week later, rose water is added. It’s all filtered, then bottled and it’s ready to be used.
Anyone interested in the workshop and tour, Spices, Scents & Supper, please see our event on eventbrite for more information!