Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world

Cochineal Production on Lanzarote

by Lucy Hornberger

Cochineal production on Lanzarote

When I was a little girl I remember being told that the red food colouring that we used to make pink icing for fairy cakes was made from squashed insects. It never occurred to me then to ask where the insects came from, but it turns out that much of it probably came from the Canary Islands, and in particular from Lanzarote.
In the area around Lanzarote's famous Jardín de Cactus you may notice plantations of rather miserable looking prickly pear cacti, their paddle-like leaves splodged with whitish-grey lumpy patches. Far from being evidence of neglect, this is actually the remains of what was once a great Canarian industry - the production of cochinilla, or cochineal.
Cochineal is a red dye, produced from dried, crushed and boiled-up cochineal insects. It was much prized in the past as a textile dye, and is still used today as a food colouring and also in cosmetics. Next time you buy cherry flavour yoghurt, strawberry ice cream or a red lipstick, check the ingredients for E120, Natural Red 4 or 'carmine', all names for the natural cochineal dye.
The cochineal insects are parasitic and live and feed on the prickly pear cactus. They are harvested every three months as they near the end of their life cycle. They are collected by scooping or brushing them off the cactus paddles, then dried in the sun. The dried insects look very similar to the granules of volcanic ash that the host cacti are cultivated in, but when crushed they crumble to produce a red smear. Boiled with an alum mordant and additives such as calcium, cochineal produces a wide range of red and purple shades from delicate pink, salmon and mauve to fuchsia and burgundy.
Cochineal beetles are native to Mexico, and cochineal dye was used by the native people before the Spaniards arrived. The colonists were quick to capitalise on the economic possibilities of this new dye and they kept strict control of production and trade. Other nations are said to have spent years trying to discover the source of this wonderful rich red dye - was it from an animal, a fruit, a seed? But eventually some cactus paddles containing cochineal beetles were smuggled to the French territory of Haiti and the secret was out.
Later, when the Mexican War of Independence losened colonial control of the lucrative trade, the Spanish changed tack and actively encouraged the spread of cochineal cultivation throughout their territories. Thus cochineal arrived on the Canary Islands, and was introduced to Lanzarote in the 1830s. It is said that the locals were initially uninterested and even hostile to the new crop, but when disease devastated their grape vines in the 1850s they were persuaded to give it a try. Soon whole vineyards were being torn out in favour of cochineal production, and by the 1880s cochineal was the chief cash crop of the islands.
Inevitably cheaper synthetic dyes eventually replaced cochineal in textile dying, and cultivation for food dyes declined dramatically in the face of competition from Peru. But cochineal cultivation never died our entirely on Lanzarote, hence the plantations that remain in the north-east of the island, in and around the villages of Mala and Guatiza.
In recent years suspicion of food additives (and in particular possibly carcinogenic red synthetic food dyes) has caused cochineal production to become profitable once again. On Lanzarote this has encouraged moves to revitalise the industry and interest tourists. The Milana Association runs a small information centre in a former primary school on the main road in Mala village. The centre has facilities for dyeing workshops, weaving looms and a display corner. They also sell pots of dried cochineal which make an interesting souvenir or gift for those interested in handicrafts and textiles. An enterprising farmer sometimes gives demonstrations of cochineal harvesting in his field on the edge of the Jardin de Cactus carpark - worth a look if you are visiting the garden.

Cochineal production in the fieldCochineal production in the field

Close up of the cochineal beetles on a cactus paddleClose up of the cochineal beetles on a cactus paddle

Crushing the beetles gives bright red dyeCrushing the beetles gives bright red dye

Wool skeins dyed with cochinealWool skeins dyed with cochineal

Silk fabric dyed with cochinealSilk fabric dyed with cochineal

The Milana Association information centre in Mala villageThe Milana Association information centre in Mala village

Cochineal production fields in GuatizaCochineal production fields in Guatiza

Article & photos posted 4th February 2016

Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.


Sue on April 4, 2016:
What a fascinating account! Like you, it hadn't occurred to me that cochineal beetles would need to be farmed in some way for production of the dye.
Priti on June 3, 2016:
Beautifully and simply explained. Made me stop and wonder about things we take for granted - colours. I will definitely be doing more research on sources of colour in food, textiles etc. Loved the photos accompanying the article too.

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