Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Color of Red

RED - the Color of Desire and why Mexico has a lot to do with this.
On Valentines Day the world is coming up roses, red roses. Other than giving our Valentine red roses and red hearts, chocolate boxes with red ribbons enjoy a brisk business and restaurants offer romantic dinners with seductive red berries for desserts. Red on this day is all about love. Yet, this is only one aspect of red, the one color that in my opinion has a seriously split personality. Throughout the ages in all cultures of the world red has represented power, status, wealth, fame, courage, the divine, good luck, prosperity, but also danger, sin and the forbidden. The cardinal vested in his scarlet garment and the red devil greeting you in hell; it’s enough to make you see red.
Blood and its intense red might be one of the reasons for mans fascination with the color. To be able to create the same shade of red for textile dyes and artists paint has been a millennium quest for man. This brilliant color that is abundant in nature on flowers, animals, the plumage of birds, fire and sun sets, eluded them. Roots, minerals and insects have produced shades of muted red or ochre in the past, they were very labor intensive to obtain and many pounds of these pain strikingly harvested products were needed to dye a small amount of fabric. These often proved to fade over a short period of time. Only the very rich and powerful and successful artists could afford these expensive pigments for their clothing and paintings.
This all changed when the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortez entered the market of Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City). Not only was he and his men dazzled by the never before seen display of foods, but what captured his attention more than anything else were the white cotton gowns the natives wore, interwoven with the most vivid colors they had ever seen. Among them was the brilliant red the old world had unsuccessfully tried to produce. When asked to see the dye, Cortez was presented with a sack of silvery grey granules, the seize of what today we might compare to cracked wheat.
They named the dye “grano cochinilla” or cochineal (dactylopius coccus, a scale insect). The Aztec rulers held the dye in very high esteem and demanded a yearly tribute of 40 sacks of granules and 2000 red cotton blankets.
Mexicans are known for putting what is considered a plight to good use. A very good example is huitlacoche, the corn fungus, considered a delicacy in Mexico. Non-Mexicans have labeled it as corn smut when it appeared on their ears of corn and tossed out in disgust. However, today it is marketed as the truffle of Mexico and served in fine dining establishments throughout the world.
The cochineal female bug sets up house on the nopal, a cactus (opuntia ficus-indica),they then cover themselves with a waxy white coat for protection against the elements and from deadly predators, mostly ants. Its body produces a liquid, carminic acid, which is a brilliant red color. Rather than considering it a pest, chewing away on one of their most important foods, Mexicans scraped the bugs of the nopal, dried them in the sun and used the “grano” to dye their textiles red. This is the amazing red dye the entire world had been searching for.
If the Spanish did not find the riches they had hoped for in their explorations, the red dye became for the next 200 years one of their most lucrative exports from the New World. Upon its first appearance in Europe and Asia the dyestuff caused a major sensation. Nations of the world wanted to find out what grass produced this wonder grain and some of the most ridiculous pursuits followed. Only after the invention of the microscope was the secret bug inside the “grain” revealed in 1694. Spain needed to fiercely protect its cochineal monopoly; the red dye was in big demand. Their ships with the precious cargo were prone to piracy and daredevil spies risked their lives trying to smuggle nopal hosting cochineal bugs out of Mexico. However these attempts all ended disastrously. The bugs did not enjoy the long sea voyage in damp quarters and if they survived, they did not like the new host nopal, the cactus already exported from Mexico to many other countries at an earlier time. Deadly predators who did not mind the carminic acid in their bodies also spelled the end of the efforts of transplanting the desired bug to new places. These failures enabled the Spanish to successfully control the cochineal trade for almost 200 years and the fortune they gained was equal to the export of silver extracted from the abundant mines in Mexico.
The rich of the world swaddled themselves in brilliantly red clothes, wove carpets, covered furniture and walls in their castles and patrician homes. Artists such as Rembrandt were able to paint portraits of their benefactors in their red finery.
What finally brought the Spanish monopoly to an end was the chaos of the Mexican 1810 revolution. The cochineal production had previously moved into Guatemalan territory, which at that time was part of Mexico, but became independent after the revolution. Spain’s empire was crumbling and they lost control of Mexico. After having been established in Guatemala, the cochineal production rapidly spread into South America, Spain, North Africa and the Canary Islands. Sadly the success for these countries was short lived. With the discovery of the aniline-based synthetic dyes, the cochineal trade practically collapsed over night. Very little demand remained to supply the artisanal dye industry and artists paints.
When in 1970 it was discovered that the synthetic red dye #2 used in many food products was carcinogenic, new demand for the natural and safe cochineal emerged. Today beverages, jam, jelly, ice cream, sausages, pies, cakes, cookies, dried fish, yogurt, cider, maraschino cherries, tomato products, chewing gum, pills and cough drops are some of the food items brightened with it. Cosmetic rouge and lipsticks has cochineal as its main color ingredient.
Happy Red Valentines Day.

If you would like to find out more about cochineal: in Oaxaca Rancho La Nopalera –Tlapanochestli in Coyotepec is a showplace for demonstrating how cochineal is produced.
For the complete intriguing history of cochineal you might want to read “A Perfect Red” by Amy Butler Greenfield (Harper Collins).
Negroni, my favorite red drink is made with Campari, which is as brilliantly red as cochineal gets.
1 oz gin
1 oz Campari

1/2 oz Sweet Vermouth (if too tart, add one ounce of this)
Fill cocktail shaker with ice.

Add gin, Campari and sweet vermouth in cocktail shaker.
 Shake vigorously (until your hands can’t stand the cold any more) and strain into a cocktail glass.

Garnish with lemon twist or orange twist.

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