When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s the ice cream van would drive around the streets at teatime. We would rush out with a glass bowl kept for best and only used on Sundays and ask for ‘four scoops and drizzle the top with red syrup’. My dad who always liked to tease us kids would pull a face and say Yuk don´t eat that its beetle’s blood! It was a long time before I realised there was some truth in his comment and the red cochineal food colouring actually came from tiny bugs. Because of what my dear old dad used to say it was reason enough for Jim and me to go to Buzanada on Sunday after seeing the advert.
We parked by the football ground which was full and followed the crowd over a dirt path and found ourselves in the midst of a group of locals all chatting away happily. The majority were wearing battered old hats to protect them for the sun and boy did we need them standing in the middle of a field of prickly pear cactus. Lots of men had brought guitars and what I suppose were ukuleles and kept us entertained while we waited for the main players to start their re-enactment of what used to take place on a daily basis not that long ago. I think perhaps the programme of events may have been going out on TV because there were lots of people with cameras and a man from Tourism gave an overview of what we were about to see.
Of course like most things on the island the starting time of 11.00am had little meaning and we eventually got going around 11.30am when ladies in large hats and with their arms and legs wrapped in strong brown paper came into the field. We cautiously followed them through the cacti, stepping over dried up old bushes and trying not to lose our footing on the loose stones.
I didn´t know much about these bugs other than for centuries, the pigment extracted from the female who outnumbers the males by approx 200 to 1 has been used as a dye. Cortez discovered that the Aztecs used it when he arrived in the ‘New World’ in 1518 and the Mayan and Incan Indians are believed to have cultivated the bug for its colouring properties. By the 16th century it was more expensive than gold and because lots of Canarians originate from South America it is believed that around 1820 a Guatemalan brought cochineal to the Islands, where it became an extremely important product. In the south of the island harvesting and producing cochineal played a major part in the local economy and large quantities would be shipped around the world in particular to the UK and Japan.
The brown paper and a spoon with a long handle was the ladies only protection against the sharp spikes on the prickly pear plants which is the bugs’ preferred host.
Each time they spotted a plant that had white powder on it they took their spoon and scraped it into a small tin. Once the tin was full an old curtain was placed on the ground and the contents sieved through various sized metal grids. Finally the remains were tipped into a pillowcase and swung around for a few minutes so that anything left behind had a coating of powder and these we learnt were the tiny black cochineal bugs which are dried in the sun before being sold.
Developments in the way cochineal is farmed today on a huge scale in countries such as Peru means that Tenerife is no longer competitive. However, there is still a small demand for the dye for use in lipsticks, nail varnishes, artists’ paints and food colouring, particularly in sausages!
It is a shame that this labour intense activity of our ancestors is no longer commercially viable but it was lovely to see so many people there. It has also given OH a new hobby, he is now walking round inspecting cacti, finding the bugs and seeing just how far the colour can spread.