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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Travel Like Mozart

You think you know Italy. You’ve traveled to Rome, Venice and Florence. You’ve been to Siena, Cinque Terre, the Amalfi coast and Como. You’ve been to Pisa, Parma and Pompei and basked under the Tuscan sun. Seen the towers of San Gimignano and drunk the Brunellos of Chianti. Bravo fellow Italian traveler you’ve just began to discover Italy!

There’s much more to see and learn about Italy and like the proverbial onion or tip of the iceberg you need to dig deeper and peel away the layers of  “show and tell” travel to discover Italy beyond the beltway. Mozart toured Europe as a child, something that was not commonly done at that time. Traveling with his father and other members of his family he performed for various courts and dignitaries. Journeys that exposed him to many different styles of music (notably Italian and German) with lasting impressions that influenced his destiny as a composer. Mozart made three trips to Italy with varying degrees of pleasure and success but uncontested in the wealth of ideas that strongly influenced his artistic development.

mozartOn your next trip to Italy, travel like Mozart, go further afield and look for something completely different. Besides Assisi visit La Verna, a Franciscan retreat in the centre of the Tuscan Apennines, where Francis received the stigmata. Discover that there’s more than wine in and around Chianti, visit San Giovanni d’Asso near Siena for truffles with a side trip to an Italian terme. Drive the historical route of the Brenta Riviera and visit the Palladian villas  of the Veneto near Vicenza. Stop at Trattoria Porto Menai dall’ Antonia along the canal in Mira for a spectacular feast of scampi giganti griglia (giant shrimp, grilled) with prosecco to drink.

You may have seen the Sistine Chapel but the mosaics of Ravenna will leave you with an equal sense of wonder. Leonardo’s Last Supper is amazing but Giotto’s interpretation, located in the Scrovegni chapel on the estate grounds of a Paduan money lender’s son who in atonement for his father’s sins sought redemption through art, is in many ways as intriquing as Leonardo’s masterpiece in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Discover 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. Visit Ferrara, Verona, the Gonzaga court of Mantua and Bellagio for a romantic view.

Learn new things  about Italy to add to what you already know and come up with something completely different in your travels. I guarantee you’ll never think of  Italy the same afterwards and never think about having a cappuccino after 12 noon.

21 Undeniably Signs You’ve Traveled in Italy (on more than a “show and tell” tour)

Are you part of the confraternity of Italian travelers who have truly seen and savored Italy? Off the tourist flow to see Italy’s iconic sights a little differently. Traveling le stradi dei vini e sapori to taste regional Italy food at the gastronomic epicenter of the world. Ready to return home boasting about the most wonderful food you ate, wine you drank and what you saw.

Traveling to Italy on more than a “show and tell” tour will take you down Roman roads, past castles with Celtic altars and Etruscan ruins, through medieval walled cities and alpine lakes, visiting Renaissance chapels and Gothic cathedrals, into kitchens, vineyards and orchards to experience the food of princes, popes, pilgrims and everyday Italians, developing a taste for Italy and wanting more.

Here are 21 undeniably signs you’ve seen and savored Italy.

1. You can’t drive by the Olive Garden without thinking or saying “THEY JUST DON”T GET IT”.

2. You’re on a universal quest to find the right olive oil like the one you had in Italy.

3. You find yourself wanting to take a mid-day break without regret just to rest and recharge.

4. You would never think of having a cappuccino after 12 noon.

5. You’re favorite pizza is Pizza Margherita with Bufala Mozzarella.

6. Each night after dinner you take a passeggiata.

7. You’ve seen the Palladian villas.

8. You’re favorite Italian cheese is something other than parmesan.

9. You’ve driven through the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany.

10. You’ve been to an Italian terme.

11. You’ve stared at the starry blue mosaic ceiling of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna.

12. You’ve stopped at a cicchetti bar in Venice for a nibble and nip.

13. You’ve eaten papparadelle con lepre or a ragu’ of wild boar.

14. You’ve visited the Museo di Tartufo in San Giovanni d’Asso for an addictive truffle experience.

15. On more than one occasion, you have cornered a totally uninterested stranger at a house party to rant about how America needs to learn how to make a proper pizza.

16. Supermarket cheese aisles depress you.

17. Chianti is not your favorite Italian wine.

18. You’ve window shopped Via Monte Napoleone in Milan.

19. Visited a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Italy.

20. You’ve breathed the air of the Renaissance at Santa Maria Novella Farmacia in Florence.

21. You find that you sometimes avoid talking about Italy or your time there, because you know how pretentious it sounds (but come on!! it’s a huge part of your life!!).

Burning Paper

incense  carta armeniaPaper that reacts like incense. Famous throughout Europe, these amazing papers, called carta  d’Armenia are exactly as they were in the 16th century. Fibrous looking papers with resinous scents of frankincense and myrrh. Folded into a fan-like shape and carefully lit the slip of paper unfolds into wisps of sweetly scented smoke like a concertina releasing perfumed notes . Smoldering little strips of paper with a breath from the Renaissance.

My carta d’ Armenia burning papers are from Santa Maria Novella Farmacia in Florence. A fragrant universe filled with terra-cotta jars and gilded urns that was already well-known in Dante’s time. A weary traveler could benefit from knowing about the ancient workshops and antica farmacia (pharmacies) where burning papers with healing ingredients create an Italian sense of benessere. They can be found all over Italy if you know where to look.

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.