Carnevale Colored Sweets

alkermesI 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.

carnevaleFavored 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.

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The Elixir of Popes, Painters and Lorenzo the Magnificent

Referred to as the “Godfathers of the Renaissance”, the Medici are known for many things. Their political skills, papal legacy, ambition and struggle for power in 15th century Italy were equally matched by their cultural and artistic patronage of some of the most famous artists and scholars of the Western world. Da Vinci, Donatello, Raphael, Giotto, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Vasari and Galileo were all under the influence of their dynastic rule. Leo X and Clement VIII were part of the family.

AlkermesWhat fueled the bodies and energized the minds of these Renaissance movers and shakers? Perhaps it was an elixir.  Elixirs are sweetened liquids usually containing alcohol with complex and exotic formulas believed to have medicinal properties and health benefits. Experiencing melancholy, seeking wisdom and longevity, do you have a fluttering heart or frequent fainting spells, spasms or hysteria? These vexations of the body were said to be cured by the restorative properties of elixirs.

A favored elixir of the Medici said to be “revive weary and lazy spirits” was the scarlet Alkermes. Dispensed through the Dominican farmacia of Santa Maria Novella, the formula is thought to have originated in 9th century Persia as a medicinal drink used as a restorative by royalty. The monastic formula was a revision of the original and contained clove, nutmeg and orange blossom. The original included, gold leaf, honey, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk, rosewater and kermes; alchemic yet somewhat recognizable ingredients except for the enigmatic kermes.

Kermes is a small parasitic insect (Kermes vermilio) found on the Mediterranean oak tree whose desiccated bodies yield a crimson dye. Popular as a natural colorant, kermes was used to dye the yarn woven into many of the Gothic tapestries producing a fine blood-red color which to this day “remains unfaded, though many of them are two or three hundred years old”. Cochineal, another colorant derived from insects replaced kermes in the monk’s recipe.

Today Alkermes is thought of as an exotic Italian liqueur used in the making of zuppa inglese(Italian trifle). It is drizzled over the final layer of savoiardi or lady fingers for color and flavoring.  Commercially available, with alcoholic contents ranging from 21 to 32%, it is still an exotic ingredient somewhat difficult to find. I found my bottle at the Alkermes PamOfficina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the personal pharmacy of the Medici where you can still buy ancient elixirs, oils and perfumes from the Renaissance.  At times I’ve been tempted to take a swig of it to revive my weary and lazy spirits or flavor my zuppa inglese but for some reason I can’t seem to get by the origin of the word Alchermes. Although today artificial  substitutes are used to achieve Alkermes scarlet red color, the name Alkermes comes from the Arabic “al quermiz”, meaning “the worm”, which in reality is the insect (the cochineal*), from which the scarlet color of the elixir of the Medici comes.

*many contemporary preparations still use cochineal extract and a similar ingredient called carmine in their products and have been used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

A Breath from the Renaissance

A weary traveler could benefit from knowing about the ancient workshops and antica farmacia (pharmacies) where healing ingredients from nature create an Italian sense of benessere. They can be found all over Italy if you know where to look.

Behind an unassuming entrance on Via della Scala 16 down the street from the Santa Maria Novella train station is one of the oldest farmacia in Florence, Santa Maria Novella Farmacia also known as the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. 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.

SMN products are truly unique. Soaps are made by hand, molded with antique equipment and aged like a fine cheese. Potpourri are made from flowers and herbs grown in the Florentine hills. Ancient and evocative preparations like elixir Alkermes (a rare but obtainable exlir said to offset weary and lazy spirits) were formulated by friar-chemists. There are calming waters for tired or puffy eyes, an aromatic vinegar (Aceto dei Sette Ladrei) said to be useful for fainting spells and an antihysteria water which I am pleased to say I haven’t needed yet. One of the first alcohol based perfumes, Aqua della Regina, was created here for Caterina de’Medici, an essence she took with her when she became the Queen of France. Every time I travel to Florence I live the life of a Medici princess and buy soaps, scented wax tablets and carta d’Armenia, little strips of paper  that smolder and freshen the air with a breath from the Renaissance.

Although the frescoes and imposing salons of SMN  Farmacia may seem more like a museum than a working pharmacy, don’t let the ornate interior and gilded furnishings deter you. There is much to see and enjoy and there is an English lista of everything in the shop. The sales staff is open to polite requests for information and help (although I have heard otherwise). Just plan what you would like to buy and ask for it with intention.