It all started over dinner at The Red Grape in Sonoma. After finishing an always WOW "Gorgonzola Salad", and tucking into the "Sonoma" pizza, it was time for those still hungry (especially Miss Olivia) to try out dessert. Yalda cautioned Miss Olivia that eating the marachino cherry on top of her hot fudge sundae wouldn't be so great, especially if she knew how it was made. I said that I could certainly tell her something about it that would insure that she wouldn't be tempted, and Yalda was sure that her Dad's information would be tops on that score. Linda noted that part of that story was that the cherry was soaked in lye for a month to begin with...
And here is my part of the marachino cherry story. Since some artificial red dye was found to be carcinogenic, and some feel that artificial red dye causes hyperactivity in children, more natural sources have been increasingly used as food coloring. One of the more common 'natural' sources happens to be ground up insects. Yes, that's right, a certain insect has been used for centuries as a common food dye. (Can you hear the 'ewws!' resounding around the table?)
Here's some information from the trusted Urban Legends site (gee! some people doubted this was true?). "Cochineal and its close cousin carmine (also known as carminic acid) are derived from the crushed carcasses of a particular South and Central American beetle. These popular colorants, which today are used to impart a deep red shade to fruit juices, gelatins, candies, shampoos, and more, come from the female Dactylopius coccus, a beetle that inhabits a type of cactus known as Opuntia.
Dactylopius coccus was the source of a red dye used by Aztecs and Mexican Indians for centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards. Those indigenous peoples would collect cochineal insects, briefly immerse them in hot water to kill the beasties and dissolve the females' waxy coating, and then dry them in the sun. The dessicated insects would then be ground to a fine powder.
The Spaniards immediately grasped the potential of the pigment, so these dried insects became one of the first products to be exported from the New World to the Old. Europeans took to the beautiful, bright scarlet colour immediately both for its vibrant hue and for its extraordinary colorfast properties, ensuring that boatloads of cochineal insects would make the trans-Atlantic trek.
Today cochineal has been surpassed as a dye for cloth by a number of synthetic pigments, but is still widely used as a coloring agent for a number of foodstuffs, beverages, and cosmetics (because many of those synthetic dyes proved dangerous to humans when taken internally or allowed to leach into the body through the skin). It takes about 70,000 insects to make one pound of cochineal.
While cochineal is used in a wide variety of foods, it is not found in kosher products because Jewish dietary laws prohibit the inclusion of insects or their parts in food. The "ewww!" factor nothwithstanding, cochineal is a safe food colorant aside from a few rare cases of allergic reaction."
Cochineal is gathered by hand in the wild by campesinos using homemade brushes and nets to collect it. In 1996, Peru harvested 640 metric tons of cochineal, which accounted for roughly 85% of the world’s production. Of this, 500 metric tons were gathered from cacti growing in the wild. The campesinos photographed here are harvesting cochineal in Allpa Urquna, a small village in the mountains outside of Ayacucho, Peru. Photography by David McLain/Aurora & Quanta Productions