Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Crimson Insect.

I said yesterday that it is difficult to overestimate the commercial value of the cochineal insect in its heyday. The intense red ‘carmine’ colour derived from the scale insect Dactylopius coccus was in use by the people of Central America when the Spanish arrived in the early sixteenth century. It became a huge industry in Mexico – second only to silver – and many thousands of pounds were produced and exported annually. The deep crimson colouring was used in food, certainly, but the huge volume used was on account of its use as a textile dye – think of all of those crimson uniforms beloved of the military in Europe.

The industry virtually died out when synthetic dyes were developed in the nineteenth century, but there has been a small awakening, thanks to the understanding that some of these dyes are carcinogenic. Perhaps the modern trend to espouse ‘natural’ foodstuffs has helped too – you cant get much more natural than an insect, after all, although I assume cochineal is eschewed by vegans. 

The recipes I am going to give you today demonstrate a wonderful irony: here we have a truly ‘natural’ food colouring being used to make unshamedly unnatural jam and vinegar.

Mock Raspberry Jam.
12 lb.ripe tomatoes, 9lb sugar, 1 bottle essence of raspberry, cochineal.
Pour boiling water over tomatoes and peel them. Put into a preserving pan and add sugar. Boil until thick, then add raspberry essence. Remove from fire and colour to desired colour with cochineal. This is an excellent jam, and is equal to raspberry.
Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 - 1954) Thursday 24 May 1945

Raspberry Vinegar.
Take 3 ½ cupfuls of boiling water, 2 ½ cupfuls of: sugar, one bottle of cochineal, one bottle of raspberry essence, l oz. tartaric acid. Put all the ingredients, excepting the cochineal, into a basin or jug, pour boiling water over them, stir until the sugar is quite melted, then add the cochineal, and when cool it is ready for use. A tablespoonful in a glass of water makes a refreshing drink.
Sunday Times (Perth, WA)  20 December 1914

Quotation for the Day
People who shop in health food stores never look healthy.
Amy Sedaris


carolina said...

Cochineal is still used extensively to dye wool yarn at many historical museums. It's also often still used to color things like yogurt. Soooo...vegans...beware!

The Old Foodie said...

Interesting, Carolina. I just assumed no-one used cochineal in huge quantities anymore - only purist (non-vegan!) cooks.