Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

kermes a deep purple-red dye used since ancient times as a food colouring. Its name is derived from the Arabic word qirmiz, which has the same meaning.

Kermes has a curious source. It is made from the dried, pulverized bodies of a scale insect, Coccus ilicis, which is a parasite on an ilex (or evergreen) oak, the kermes oak. After mating, the female insect settles on the oak and becomes attached to it, losing all her limbs, and swells into a round, featureless lump. For this reason it was long thought that the ‘grains’ which appeared on the tree were vegetable rather than animal. They are not the same as oak galls, which contain an insect larva but consist of woody vegetable matter produced by the tree itself in response to the irritation caused by the parasite.