I bought my first bottle of alkermes in Florence at Santa Maria Novella Farmacia on Via della Scala 16 down the street from the Santa Maria Novella train station. A fragrant universe filled with terra-cotta jars and gilded urns that was already well-known in Dante’s time. It was established in the 13th century by the Dominican friars of Florence who began to cultivate and prepare medicinal plants and herbs used in the treatment of the sick. Many of the products available for purchase today are based on the ancient recipes of the friars.
The ancient recipe of alkermes has a colorful history. Originally formulated by a 9th century Persian physician in the court of the caliph of Bagdad as a medicinal elixir for the elite, the incensual ingredients used in the Persian recipe read like a formula for an exotic perfume; aloes, ambergris, apple juice, cinnamon, gold leaf, honey, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk, and rosewater. Kermes, a type of small insect found on Mediterranean oak trees, provided an intoxicating scarlet color.
The scarlet elixir of Arabic origin made its way to the formulary of the monks of Santa Maria Novella. Cochineal, another insect based powdered red colorant, replaced the exotic kermes in the Renaissance recipe refined by infusing neutral spirits with herbs and spices such as garofano (clove oil), orange, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and coriander.
Favored by Caterina de’ Medici, alkermes became an essential ingredient in many Italian pastries including zuppa inglese and traditional Carnevale sweets like castagnole, sweet fritters rolled in sugar & drizzled with alkermes.