ALCHERMES/ALKERMES (The liqueur used to make Zuppa Inglese)

It is interesting how some dessert recipes never die, for example Trifle.

Recently I ate a very nice trifle at a friend’s house. Our Californian friends were also guests and I was surprised to discover that they were not familiar with our common dessert made with sponge-cake, flavoured with wine or spirit, and served with custard and whipped cream.

Zuppa Inglese is the Italian version of an English trifle and literally translated it means English soup. This renowned Italian dessert contains sponge fingers, liqueur and crema inglese (crème anglaise). It may well be a tarted-up adaptation of English trifles introduced by the many wealthy English residents either living or visiting Italy in the  late 18th – 19th century (World War 2).

Zuppa  (meaning soup) could refer to the moist consistency of the dessert. But zuppa could also be derived from inzuppare, meaning to soak, and in the Zuppa Inglese, Italians replaced the jelly and jam (often red in colour) with a strong liqueur called Alchermes (or Alkermes).

Alchermes is a highly alcoholic, Florentine liqueur, red in colour and specifically used for making zuppa inglese. It is reputed to have been a secret recipe of the Medici family. The modern Alchermes is likely to be the development of an eighth century tonic which as well as rose-water, cinnamon, sugar and honey, was said to contain ground pearls, leaf gold, raw silk, musk, ambergris (produced in the digestive of system of sperm whales and used in perfumes).

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When I was a child living in Italy in the late 1950’s, Zuppa Inglese was a very in-style, traditional dessert and served in Italian restaurants.

Generally Italians living in Italy do not make desserts at home; if we had guests, my mother bought tortes or small cakes (as is the practice to buy from the experts, in this case from the pasticceria). This was not the norm in Australia and my mother made Zuppa Inglese for special occasions. I have continued to make this to the present day.

Alchermes was unavailable for many years and I had to use Maraschino – the zuppa inglese was a pale imitation of the Italian original and in the 1980’s I began making my own Alchermes.

Alchermes is reminiscent the Sicilian rosaliu – the generic name for a homemade liqueur – the flavourings are steeped in alcohol for a time, then sugar and water are added. Rosaliu possibly dates back to the 15th Century and was originally a pink cordial, made from rose petals (hence the name), it may have been an adaptation to rose sharbat (still popular in the middle east). Progressively and by the mid 18th Century it became an alcoholic drink generally made with lemons, oranges or mandarins and these became favoured over rose as flavourings. My elderly Sicilian aunt, zia Niluzza is a champion rosoliu maker and I make Alchermes by using a very similar procedure.

Pure grain alcohol is sold freely in Italy but in Australia I make Alchermes with grappa or vodka. Generally I do not measure quantities of spices – the following amounts are an approximation.

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INGREDIENTS

vodka or grappa (bottles are 700ml, I use about two-thirds of a bottle)
cinnamon sticks, 3,
orange peel from 1 orange,
fennel, cardamom pods, coriander seeds and cloves, 1 heaped tablespoon of each (cracked/bruised),
mace or nutmeg, shavings or powder, equivalent to 1 tablespoon
saffron, 1 large pinch of and/or ½ vanilla bean (spilt)
cochineal, ½ teaspoon or more
rose water, 1 tablespoon
Use a large wide mouth jar with a screw on lid. Place the alcohol into the jar and add all of the above flavourings, except for cochineal and rose water.
Leave undisturbed to steep in the alcohol in a cool dark place for at least 14 days.
Dissolve about 500g of sugar in 1 litre of hot (boiled) water. When cooled add some cochineal (to colour) and rose water. Add this to the to the alcohol and spices.
Strain through a piece of cheesecloth into a large jug or jar.
Transfer the contents into bottles (with a strong seal).

It keeps indefinitely.

Quannu ‘na cosa piaci, nun fa dannu (Sicilian proverb).
Quando una cosa piace, non fa` danno (Italian translation).
When one likes something, it can’t do any damage.

Zuppa Inglese continues to be glorified in my present household. For Christmas, we sometimes go to Albury where my partner’s family live and one year I was asked to make a trifle. I made a Zuppa Inglese and was nervous about presenting this variation.

But I needn’t have worried and I have been asked to make Zuppa Inglese again and again – it is the homemade Alchermes that does it, and keeps everyone happy!

See: How to make Zuppa Inglese, a famous Italian Dessert.

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16 thoughts on “ALCHERMES/ALKERMES (The liqueur used to make Zuppa Inglese)”

  1. Hi I came across this post while searching for Alchermes – since I cant get to Italy I am going to try this recipe. Is there anything I can use to replace the cochineal powder with thanks!!!

  2. Cochineal is a liquid red dye- it has no taste, so red food dye would work.

    In my next post (I will post it later today) I have a recipe for making a rose liqueur and I have written that next time I make it, I would like to experiment by using a little grated beetroot in the alcohol for the colour (not enough to spoil the taste) – this is entirely my idea so it could be a very silly one!

  3. FANTASTIC that you posted this! Thank you! I’ve been looking for the Alkermes that is made at Santa Maria Novella in Florence for almost a decade, without success. Now I will make my own. Yippie!!

  4. One of my favourite desserts in Italy is a pastry called “pesche”, which are two small, spongey white hemispheres, rolled in alchermes, stuck together with nutella and rolled in coarse sugar. I just made my first Australian batch, and they taste exactly as I had them in Italy! I had made them a few times while I lived there, so I knew the recipe. I went ahead and used a whole bottle of vodka, as it was more simple to pour the whole thing. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Congratulations for making ‘pesche’- these were popular small cakes in the 1970’s in Adelaide (I do not know about elsewhere in Australia). In the version of ‘pesche’ I know, crème patisserie is used to to glue together the sponge cheeks.
    Thank you for sharing your information, and yes, vodka does come in handy.

  6. hi – i often make pesche, but unfortunately i make them without Alchermes 🙁 I substitute with Amaretto. Not the same, but what can i do? I am trying to find out where i can buy Alchermes in Sydney. But in the meantime, i am going to try and use your recipe.

  7. I really do not know where you can buy Alchemes in Sydney but I have had many requests. Go to a good bottle shop that stocks imported wine and ask. They can look it up or give you a better idea of who to approach.
    Good luck.

  8. I recently found a recipe for Pesche in a book I bought; they substituted the Alchermes with Rum; based on the recipe for Alchermes above, it would probably change the flavor of the dessert entirely. I am looking forward to making the Alchermes at home in order to create the original Pesche recipe. Many Thanks for your kindness in sharing your recipe.

  9. Hi my name is Julie; I have been searching the net and found a supplier of Alchermes in CA America; the Corti Bros sells online for around $37.40 I don’t think I can purchase from Australia, but I hope it helps someone in America to buy it. The Brand name is Luxardo Alkermes Good Luck! I have put their details below

    To contact us or place an order:

    Grocery: (916) 736-3814
    Produce: (916) 736-3804
    Meat: (916) 736-3805

    Office: (916)736-3800
    Shipping Dept (916) 736-3818
    Phone Orders: 1-800-509-3663

    Deli: (916) 736-3802
    Wine: (916) 736-3803
    Kitchen: (916) 736-3801

    Fax: (916)736-3807

    Email: cortibros@sbcglobal.net

    Our store is located at:

    Corti Brothers
    5810 Folsom Boulevard
    Sacramento, CA 95819

  10. Hi Marisa, I stumbled upon your blog trying to find out what Alchermes is (as I found it as an ingredient for a type of panettone I was hoping to make for Easter Sunday – 2 days away!). 2 good things have happened – I have found out more about Alchermes and what it is used for plus I have discovered your blog, which I very much look forward to reading.
    Buona Pasqua a te!
    Paola

  11. Hi, I know it’s an answer to a very old post now.
    Those living in Melbourne can get alchermes from Mediterranean Wholesaler in Brunswick.

  12. Eureka!! I found a store that sells it in the United States!!
    Binny’s out of Chicago! I live in the metro area and purchased a bottle. It truly is the one and only, amazing and rare – alkermes!!
    I see too, they have it on their website. whew, finally found some!

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