Food Coloring Agents

Date: Fri, 8 Mar 1996 13:29:49 -0800
From: (Elise Fleming)

My aim was to find and list each coloring agent for a particular color and to provide at least one documented source for using that color. My sources are primarily English or cookery books translated into English for which I have given the date of the original publication. For some coloring agents I have provided comments based on information in other texts or from other sources. The "chemist" is a professional chemist working for a major US corporation whose name I have temporarily misplaced. I submitted the colors to her to see what comments she might have about toxicity, etc. "Renfrow" is Cindy Renfrow who published Take A Thousand Eggs or More. I had correspondence with her regarding some of her comments about coloring agents in her book.

Red Coloring Agents

1. 3 or 4 oz. brazel with a little water. See Delightes for Ladies, Plat (1609) and Curye on Inglysch (14th century) "to be boiled a little while with a little gum arabic". Brazel is brasilwood. Chemist: Mixed with acid it is red; with an alkali it is yellow.

2. Sandalwood (saunders). See Forme of Cury (circa 1390), Chiquart's 'On Cookery'. My understanding is that saunders is fat soluble. Without fat, it may lie in globules in a liquid.

3. Carrots, roasted in embers provides a "sanguine color." See Epulario, or, The Italian Banquet, 1598.

4. Crushed red roses. See Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book (early 17th century). Antique roses will yield a stronger color than modern roses.

5. Juice of pomegranate. See The French Cook (1653). Chemist: Formerly used as a "teniafuge" or tapeworm removal!

6. "Barbaries" or red "Corants". See The French Cook (1653). Renfrow comments, "Barberries, 'Berberis vulgaris', having a red, elongated, acid fruit, much used for jams and pies. Red corants = currants, 'Ribes', probably fresh, not dried. Sometimes a vailable in supermarakets & sold as small red currant grapes."

7. Alkanet and orchil. See Scully's The Viandier of Taillevent and Forme of Cury. Alkanet's color isn't as pronounced as orchil. Prescott's version of Taillevent calls "orchil" as "turnsole". Du Fait de Cuisine says to clarify oil, add lots of alkanet, boil well and not much; strain it. Scully in Chiquart's 'On Cookery' identifies orchil as a lichen, "Gozophora (sic) tinctoria" which changes color: red with acids, blue with alkalies. Chiquart also calls orchil "tornesaut" or "tornesautz." See "turnsole" below and note similarity of scientific plant name. Chemist: Alkanet is also "anchusa tinctoria L." in Brunello's book. It is also listed as "alkanna tinctoria" and used for coloring wines, cosmetics, confectionery. Orchil is a name for a French dye derived from lichens "ochrolechia tartarea L." and "lecanoraceae"; used as a coloring agent for syrups and elixirs; listed in Merck index. The chemist continues that turnsole is listed by Thompson as "crozophora tinctoria"; it is red with an acid; violet with a neutral substance; blue with an alkali.

8. Galingale. This is by inference from Le Menagier de Paris as quoted in Scully's Chiquart's 'On Cookery'. "You should know that 'arquenet' is a spice which gives a red color, just like galingale, and it should be soaked in wine and the meat bouillon, and then ground up." Renfrow notes, "Dried galingale root is as tough as shoe leather & should be bought already powdered." Chemist: "Probably of the family "galium"; roots give a red dye. "G. verum", "G. rubioides", G. mollugo", "G. boreale" also used to curdle milk; common plant throughout Europe. Used to dye wool, etc., instead of madder. See Brunello's book reference under #13. Less likely: galanga = chinese ginger, galangal, colic root from China as in Merck Index."

9. Rosa Paris, a commercial Renaissance coloring. See A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1621) by John Murrell. Murrell says it must be "ground with thinne gum-Arabick water" and is "perillous to eate". In the SCA Mistress Megan ni Laine, "the limner", believes the coloring agent comes from processing a balsam lac which was used for dyeing wool. The process involved soaking in hot lye overnight and then adding alum.

10. Pink: A little carmine moised with rosewater or orchil.

11 Dark red: lake (gum-lac). See Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery (17th century). This lake is a dark resinous incrustation of certain tree insects. It was ground with gum water (gum arabic). Used to color "fruits" made of sugar. Daniel Thompson discusses the difference between lac from insects and lac from gum out of an ivy in his Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting.

12. Light red: vermillion. See Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery. This is a crystalline form of mercuric sulfide and was sued to color "fruits" made of sugar. It is NOT EDIBLE!

13. Sunflower or bugloss. I was told it was used by Taillevent but haven't seen the reference. Chemist: Bugloss is "anchusa tinctoria L.". Dyer's bugloss is a perennial plant of the "boraqinacea" family growing in the sandy soils of Southern Europe. Primarily used to dye cloth or yarn. See Franco Brunello, The Art of Dyeing in the History of Mankind, 1973.

Blue Coloring Agents

1. Fine azure, ground. See Scully's The Viandier of Taillevent and Murrell's A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1617). Murrell indicates it is very dangerous and to steep it in vinegar to kill its strength. Chemist warns that it may change color in vinegar.

2. "Blew". See Murrell's A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen. It "must bee ground with thinne gum-Arabick water... fit to garnish but perillous to eate." My guess is that both "blew" and the above-mentioned azure are "azurite", a hydrous copper carbonate, rather than the ground stone lapis lazuli. I understand that lapis, by itself, is not toxic unless it is adulterated with azurite.

3. Mulberry extract. See The Forme of Cury (circa 1390).

4. Heliotrope. This would be the French flower, not the modern one according to one SCA cook. I have not found a period reference except by the name "turnsole". See the next entry.

5. Turnsole. See Du Fait de Cuisine. It recommends a good deal of turnsole and soaking it in milk. The French Cook by Varenne (1653) mentions turnsole grated in water with a little powder of Iris. Turnsole must be used with an alkali to produce blue rather than red.

6. "Blue bottles 'in corne' ". See A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen. Renfrow notes, "A cornfower with a blue blossom, esp. 'Campanula' or 'Scilla' species, presumably ground to a powder & mixed with whatever was called for."

7. Indigo stone dissolved in water. This is not from a period reference but from a cookery book of 1909. However, "indigo woad" or "yned wawdeas" is listed under the color green.

Yellow Coloring Agents

1. Saffron. Saffron is listed in virtually every cookery book as producing yellow. Du Fait de Cuisine says to moisten with broth and heat it. Grinding the threads and heating the liquid seem to produce the most color.

2. Gamboge, heart of yellow lily. While not in one of the Renaissance cookbooks, these agents are listed in a 1909 text for confectionery colors. Renfrow comments, "Yellow Lily = 'Erythronium americanum, E. angustatum, E. bracteatum.' I would exercise caution with members of the lily family. Garlic, onion, & leek aside, there are some poisonous members (ex.: Death Camass, Fly Poison, False Hellebore). Gamboge = cambogia (both spellings still used), a agum resin from various trees of the genus 'Garcinia', used as a yellow pigment & cathartic medicine."

3. Roach allome (roche alum=rock alum). See Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery.

4. Yellow smalt. See A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen. It "must bee ground with thinne gum-Arabicke water... fit to garnish but perillous to eate." Speculation is that it might be either "Naples yellow" which is a lead tin antimonate or, speculates the chemist, more probably cobalt yellow since "smalt" is cobalt blue.

5. For a "straw" color use "A white Rose dried, and ground with Alome-water." See A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen.

Green Coloring Agents

1. Spinach juice. See Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book (early 17th century) and Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery(early 17th century).

2. Mallows, mint. I have found no reference but was told by an "Elizabethan" cook that these were used for green colors.

3. Seethed with the juice of beets. See Plat's Delightes for Ladies (1609). In general, this refers to the juice from the leaves, not the root.

4. Parsley. See Epulario, or the Italian Banquet(1598), Taillevent, and Du Fait de Cuisine. In the latter it says to grind and mix with egg whites and flour.

5. Sorrel and parsley. See Le Menagier de Paris (1395).

6. Bettonie, green corn (for broth in Epulario); also young barley blades. Corn here refers to grain, not the United States corn, and would refer to the shoots, not the individual grains.

7. Green wheat. See Epulario, A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen, Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery.

8. "herb fennet". See Scully's Taillevent. Renfrow comments, "Herb-bennet, 'Geum strictum', or Yellow Avens."

9. Turnsole. See Le Menagier de Paris. "...and if you would have it green, use turnsole." Presumably this would be using turnsole with an alkali for blue, then with a yellow agent to yield green. "Folium" is the illuminator's name for turnsole. There are red, purple, and blue foliums.

10. "Ynde wawdeas". See Curye on Inglisch where it states that when mixed with saffron and egg white it will produce green; the more saffron the lighter the green. My guess is that this is "indigo woad". Woad is chemically the same as indigo.

11. Sap green, a commercial coloring in Renaissance times. See Murrell's A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen. He states that it must be "ground with thinne gum-Arabicke water" and is "perillous to eate." Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery says to steep it in gum water. Daniel Thompson in The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting says it comes from buckthorn berries.

12. Indian lake. See Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery. A supplier of illuminator colors said that it is a special lake condensed from cow dung from India. The original color, he said, is yellow and would need to be mixed with a blue to turn green.

13. "Eldger barke". See A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen. It is "ground with gum-water and a little Alome." Renfrow comments, "Elder bark? 'Sambucus', from whence we get elderberries. The chemist adds, " 'sambucus nigra L.'. It is a cathartic and gives an olive green color."

Miscellaneous Colors

1. Purple: Turnsole again.

2. Purple: Violets.

3. Mulberry color: "Roset". See 'Banquetting Stuffe', a modern book about Tudor and Stuart cookery.

4. Brown or black: Blood. See Forme of Curye where it is "blood boiled and fried".

5. Brown: Cinnamon for dark brown; cinnamon and ginger for light brown. See 'Banquetting Stuffe'.

6. White: Use white vinegar, old verjuice for "gealies of flesh or fish". See Epulario.

7. White: Amydon, a starch paste. See Du Fait de Cuisine where it is moistened with broth. Also Forme of Curye.

Miscellaneous Coloring Agents

Flowers: Violets, cowslips, gilly-flowers, roses, and marigolds are mentioned as coloring agents in A Queen's Delight (1655). Violets, cowslips, clove-gilliflowers (dried and beaten to a powder) are mentioned in A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen. Violets will turn different colors depending on whether an acid or a base is used. Curye on Inglysche mentions roses, violets, gillyflowers, or "any other flour leues" (cut them small).

Metals: Gold and silver leaf, attached with egg white. One should be sure that it is 22 or 24 karat gold, or fine silver. "Patent" or imitation leaf can include tin or mercury compounds and would be dangerous to health. Tin leaf was available in white, red, and green colors. This, rather than the more expensive gold or silver, was mentioned as suitable for those who were not at the high table.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir