Alchermes (or alkermes) is the taste of the holidays. Not many people know about this liqueur outside Italy, and, in fact, these days you don’t come across it very often. But to me, and to many people from central Italy (mostly Tuscany and Umbria), it is the taste of those home-made desserts that you give friends and family to thank them for their hospitality when they invite you over during the holidays.
It is the smell and taste of my childhood days, when my grandmothers would gather around the “spianatoia“, the pastry board, and make “ciambellini rossi” and “salami arrotolati“, the traditional biscuits from our village covered in alchermes and sugar and a sponge-cake roll with alchermes and confectioner’s sugar: the sweets of a culinary tradition which was able to come up with delicious treats with the simplest ingredients.
When we, the Italy Blogging Roundtable ladies, decided to write about “drinking” this month, I thought I would write about traditional holiday drinks, but then I could not think of any flavour or smell that reminded me of the festive days more than that of alchermes.
My mum used to keep it in the cupboard above the kitchen stove, and me and my cousins would sneak in and steal some every once in a while, and dunk biscuits in it! Of course our parents were not at all happy when they inevitably found out!
Alchermes is a very ancient liqueur of Arabic origin prepared by infusing alcohol with sugar, rose water, orange peal, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla and other herbs. Its main feature is its unmistakeable scarlet colour, which was originally obtained by adding “kermes“, a type of small insect. After centuries during which it was considered a delicacy, in the 2oth century, the misconception that it contained insects resulted in its falling out of favour as a drink in its own right.
As a matter of fact, the recipe as we know it today can be traced back to Medicean Florence. It is also known as the “de’ Medici’s liqueur”. Its popularity outside of Italy was boosted by Caterina de’ Medici. The best alchermes, though, was produced in Florence by the Officina of the friars of Santa Maria Novella, where it is still produced today according to a recipe dating back to 1743.
Traditional Tuscan recipes which include alchermes are schiaccia briaca dell’Elba (literally, the “Elba’s drunken focaccia”), cenci ripieni di ricotta e alchermes (traditional carnival sweets filled with ricotta cheese with alchermes), zuppa inglese (sort of a local version of trifle consisting of sponge cake with alchermes and pastry cream), and ciambellini rossi (biscuits covered in alchermes and sugar). It is however an essential part of many traditional desserts and in the past, when rich fillings were a luxury, it often constituted the only addition to pastry.
If you come to Tuscany (or Umbria, and I believe Emilia and the Marches too), make sure you try some!
Italy Blogging Roundtable
This is the 16th post in a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Here you can find the posts of the other bloggers who participate in the roundtable. Our topic this month was “drinking“: