Here’s an interesting addition to the food coloring discussion from reader Jim Chevallier:
…in browsing your comments on colorants, I was reminded of a dismaying discovery I made when translating Taillevent’s medieval Viandier (as “How to Cook a Peacock” – surprisingly, one of my more popular tomes.) This was that the orchanet (alkanet) used to create the red color in a dish of that name was dangerous to ingest:
“To Make Red [Dish]
Take poussins and veal, and boil and, once they are cooked, fry them in lard; take peeled almonds, crushed up and ground fine, and soak them in the poultry broth. Then take a moderate amount of rose water, and strain with the almonds and the broth, and put in a pot, with some verjuice, and just a little white wine, and take some powdered rice and infuse with rose water, so that, when your soup is on the fire and it boils, it thickens. Put in a large amount of sugar. And to give a red color, take orchanet [EDITOR’S WARNING: Several modern herbals warn AGAINST taking this herb, also known as alkanets, internally], and heat in lard, the best lard you can find, and filter into the pot to give it color. When the meat is served in dishes, put the broth over it and gilded garlic bulbs, two or three with each dish, or some white sugared almonds, if you have them.”
No doubt it’s pretty tasty, though.
I’m sure it is. Alkanet, also called alkanna, is very interesting stuff — a blue-flowering plant, the roots of which are deep red. It’s been used around the Mediterranean since ancient times to make red and purple clothing dye, and sometimes to color food. I say “sometimes” because alkanna is another one of those colorings that’s effective in some instances and not in others. Being insoluble in water, it will only color things like fat and alcohol, which is why traditionally it’s been used to tint things like oil and wine.
It’s technically listed as a non-toxic dye, though it does contain alkaloids that are thought to be damaging to the liver, especially if consumed habitually. Would that stop me from eating peacock in orchanet if it happened to be served to me? Probably not.