Published On: Mon, Jun 11th, 2018

Are There Crushed Bugs in Your Negroni? Here’s How to Tell

That vibrant red color in your Negroni? It may be from crushed-up bugs. We’d have mentioned this earlier in Negroni Week, but it’s rather like when you initially eat escargot: Better to taste how delicious they are before learning that they’re land snails.

First, the drink itself. The Negroni is an iconic Italian apéritif: equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, served on the rocks and garnished with an orange peel. It was created in 1919 for Count Camillo Negroni at Café Casoni in Florence. The bartender was trying to heed the count’s request for a little more oomph in his Americano (sweet vermouth, Campari, soda): Scarselli simply replaced the recipe’s club soda with gin; thus was born the Negroni.

The Americano came from Milan’s Caffè Campari, circa 1860s. Gaspare Campari concocted his eponymous bitter liqueur from a still-secret recipe of 60-plus ingredients. To the herbs, tree bark, and fruit peels, Campari added a natural red dye called carmine that gave the liqueur its distinctive red color for nearly 150 years.

That dye was made from a Dactylopius coccus, aka cochineal, a scaly insect that looks like a tiny gnocchi. Cochineals thrive on prickly pears in South America and Mexico, living off the cactus juice. To defend themselves from ants and other predators, female cochineals developed a brilliant strategy: engorge themselves with carminic acid. Up to 26 percent of her body weight, in fact, is carminic acid. Squish one in your fingers, and that stuff is bright-crimson red.

To the Aztecs, that bug juice was nochezli, “blood of the prickly pear.” They used it as a textile dye, body paint, and food coloring. “Pinch a female cochineal insect and blood-red dye pours out. Apply the dye to mordant cloth, and the fabric will remain red for centuries,” wrote Amy Butler Greenfield in her book, “A Perfect Red Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire” (Harper Perennial, Reprint, $ 15.99).

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According to Threads of Peru, a fair-trade Peruvian clothier, fiber is still dyed in the region by artisans that use family recipes passed down through generations. Some use minerals salts, wood ash, and even urine to alter pH levels, which can transform cochineal from red to orange or purple.

With the advent of synthetic dyes — and perhaps, the increasing market clout of vegans — Campari (now owned by the Campari Group, along with Skyy Vodka and Grand Marnier) ceased using cochineal in the U.S. market in 2006, opting for something created in the lab vs. the belly of a bug. (According to labels collected around the world, Campari sold in Malaysia, Australia and Canada may still use the natural dye; the company didn’t respond to inquiries for clarification.)

How can you tell? Check out the bottle’s back labels in your cupboard and home bar. If there’s mention of cochineal, cochineal extract, carmine (as in Mentos and Yoplait strawberry yogurt), carminic acid, crimson lake, carmine lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, or E120, you’re sipping bug blood. Hey, some argue that honey is technically bee vomit. Don’t get squeamish.

Craft spirit makers, meanwhile, are keeping up tradition. Tempus Fugit Spirits, out of Novato, California, uses cochineal in its Creme de Noyaux, a vivid red, almond-flavored liqueur. St. George Spirits of Alameda, California, employs cochineal in its Bruto Americano, a more direct Campari substitute. Mix it with one of the brand’s killer gins, and you’re two-thirds the way to a “CaliforNegroni.”

For that true Italian cochineal Negroni experience, see Francesco Amodeo, president and master blender at Washington’s Don Ciccio & Figli. He features “blood of the prickly pear” in three of his bracing aperitivi: Cinque, Luna and Donna Rosa Rabarbaro.

“It’s an expensive endeavor,” he says, “more expensive than chemicals,” since it’s estimated that it takes about 70,000 cochineals to produce one pound of water-soluble extract. Fifty grams of cochineal costs $ 75, that’s about a third of the price of the same weight in Tsar Imperial Ossetra caviar.

It’s also quite potent. “We use one drop for every five liters of our aperitivo. That’s 0.07 grams to be exact,” says Amodeo. For what it packs in color, cochineal presents no barrier to taste. It became the favored red dye centuries ago precisely because it was vibrant, stable and safe for use in food and drink (barring a rare bug allergy), without affecting flavor at all. “You can get it in five-gallon barrels, but we buy the smallest container.” Between Don Ciccio’s boutique production and the dye’s intensity, it would take Amodeo three years to go through that five gallons.

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There is no mechanical harvest. It’s a laborious process by hand, still primarily performed in Peru and Bolivia, where prickly pears abound. The alternative is one of those cheap dyes such as FD&C No.40 (see Cherry Kool-Aid or Luden’s Wild Cherry lozenges), which has caused a stir in parenting circles for its supposed toxicity. “Their brand has expanded so much,” Amodeo explains of Campari,”they had to find a different source.”

Says Katty Peru of Impoexpoperu, a cochineal exporter in Ayacucho, Peru: “In our area, we no have factories for production. Everything is with the traditional methods by indigenous people who speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. They collect wild cochineal from nature and then dry them to clean and sell. This is hard work if someone wants to collect one to three kilograms of fresh cochineal per day.”

Amodeo tried 12 different cochineal dyes before deciding upon the right one. “It’s very consistent. We’ve been using it for two years now.” After all that research, it’s little surprise that he won’t give up the name of his source. As for outcries from vegans, he says: “We tried a million times to mimic the color with [non-cochineal] natural products, but it is impossible.”

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Are There Crushed Bugs in Your Negroni? Here’s How to Tell