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Crimson elixir from Florence

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A speciality of one of Europe’s oldest pharmacies, Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, is a mixture of alkermes, cinchona bark and chocolate syrup — a fashionable medicinal drink in 17th century Italy.

Alkermes is an elixir of Arabic origin thought to have been created in the 8th century by a Persian physician, Yuhanna Ibn Masawaih. The ingredients used in his recipe included aloes, apple juice, ambergris, cinnamon, gold leaf, honey, kermes, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk and rosewater.

This recipe may have found its way to Florence through the Medici family, who, according to a 2007 article in Gastronomica, probably passed on the recipe to Dominican friar Cosimo Bucceli. He then made it for the pharmacy where it was nicknamed the “elixir of Medici”.

Kermes was originally derived from Kermes vermilio, a parasitic insect found on Mediterranean oak trees that was used to create crimson dyes. During classical antiquity it was thought to be a berry; it was not until the microscope appeared in the 17th century that it was recognised as an insect. The elixir was popular for treating melancholy, fainting spells and syncope.

Kermes was later replaced by cochineal. Both insect products contain antioxidant flavonoids which, like the anthocyanins in berries, could contribute to the supposed health benefits of this centuries old elixir.

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