Taking this Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshop is a study in color creativity. On this second day of three, we prepare cochineal, the parasitic insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus paddle. The chemical interaction between the female bug and the cactus juice produces carminic acid.
Cochineal dyed cotton, ready for the weaver’s loom
This is the most intense and color-fast red in the natural world.
When the Spanish came to Oaxaca in 1521 they were amazed to see the deep red used to dye feathers and to paint codices, human bodies or plaster temple walls.
Lava stone mortar and pestle used only to crush dried cochineal
They called it grana cochineal, naming it a grain not an insect to disguise its origin. The Spanish kept cochineal a secret for hundreds of years, holding the world monopoly on its production and distribution. It was the third most valuable export commodity after gold and silver.
Rhiannon and Elsa strain the cochineal concentrate for the dye pot
Today, natural carminic acid colors cosmetics such as lipstick, and foods and beverages like Campari, fruit juices, jello and even meat.
Dyeing wool samples with cochineal and acid (lime juice)
Cochineal is expensive, about $125 USD or 1,800 pesos for a kilo. It can’t be wasted. That’s why Elsa grinds her dried bugs that she buys from El Tlapanochestli Cochineal Farm. You can buy packages of dried bugs for dyeing at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca gift shop.
Skeins dyed with pomegranate (granada) and wild marigold hang to dry
She grinds them to a very fine powder in a molcajete. This is a lava stone mortar and pestle. It must be very fine powder to dissolve completely in the dye bath. The finer the powder the less waste there will be.
Squeezing fresh lime juice for the acid dye bath — turns cochineal bright orange
Skein of wool dyed with wild marigold (pericone) leaves, stems and flowers
There is so much preparation even before the dyeing process begins. It’s no wonder textiles made with natural dyes cost so much! First, there is the investment in stainless steel and enamel dye pots, much more expensive than iron or aluminum, but essential so the pot chemistry doesn’t change the dye color.
Rhiannon preps a shibori scarf while waiting for cochineal dye bath to finish
Then, you have to make your recipes. What color red do you want? Deep fuchsia, orange, hot pink, magenta? Your recipe will vary depending on color intensity. You may add more water, more lime juice (acid) or baking soda (neutral).
Dyeing sample cloth with brazil wood
Next, you’ll wash your fiber in soapy water to open up the fibers to clean it and accept the mordant. You rinse the fibers several time to take out the soap and then hang it to dry.
Rhiannon and Elsa hold finished shibori — to be dyed with indigo
You will leave the cleaned fiber (we used wool) in the mordant overnight. This helps the wool absorb the dye.
On this second day, with the wool ready, we prepare the cochineal and then select the white and grey skeins to dye.
Mahogany (caoba) bark makes a beautiful peach dye
In addition, on this second day we also experiment dyeing with caoba (mahogany) and palo de Brazil (brazil wood).
Shibori is dye resist technique. Here, marbles and rubber bands make the design.
The cochineal dye pot is ready at 90 degrees centigrade. It takes an hour to cook the skeins so they absorb the right amount of color. During this time, we prepare wild marigold, mahogany, brazil wood, and pomegranate. Most of these skeins will be over dyed on Day Three to yield 32 different colors.
It’s no wonder the Spanish loved this color! Red on white and grey wool.
I write about natural dyes because Oaxaca has a long tradition of using colors derived from the natural world. I also want to encourage Oaxaca visitors to seek out and support artisans who work in natural dyes.
We determine color by weight of fiber (WOF) to amount of dye — chemistry!
I hope readers will better understand the labor involved to make textiles using this technique. Yes, the textile will cost more. Perhaps you agree that its subtle beauty will be worth it.
Wool in a pomegranate dye bath
Oaxaca Tropical Fruit + Tomato Ginger Chutney Recipe: With Some Heat!
Tropical Fruit + Tomato Ginger Chutney atop Boulanc’s walnut infused rye bread
I’ve been sequestered in my Teotitlan del Valle casita for some days now (without internet connection), more out of choice than anything. Best to hide from the heat of the day under the ceiling fan with a sewing or cooking project.
Saucepan with fruit and spices before taking the heat
So, after a trip to the Tlacolula market on Sunday where I saw an overabundance of fresh mango and papaya piled to the rooftops, I had to have some. Then, there were the tomatoes, everywhere. Did you know that tomatoes are one of Mexico’s gifts to the world?
A full pot as the cooking gets underway!
I went home and made up this recipe for a chutney jam that is great on toast or to accompany meat, poultry fish or top on steamed veggies and rice.
Lime juice and zest makes this recipe tangy sweet a la Oaxaca
I grow these peppers in a pot on my rooftop terrace. They add the heat! They are either Fresno or Serrano peppers. Not exactly sure!
Put all fruit and spices together into a six quart saucepan. Add lime juice and zest. Stir in sugar. Stir well. Put saucepan on a heat diffuser over low heat for temperature control and so bottom of pan doesn’t burn. Sugar and juices will dissolve together into a thin syrup with fruit floating around. Bring to simmer.
Note: Remove the peppers mid-way through the cooking process if you don’t like spicy.
Continue cooking on simmer, stirring frequently, until liquid reduces by 50% and thickens to a jam consistency. You can use a thermometer or test for doneness if liquid drops in thick globules from a metal spoon raised about 12″ above the sauce pan.
When it’s done, it looks like this. Of course you can always sample for thickness.
We live at 6,000 feet altitude here in Oaxaca, so cooking takes time. The chutney jam was ready after about 2 hours on the burner. Patience here is a virtue!
The lowest flame on my stove. Note the heat diffuser.
Refrigerate to eat within the next week or two. Or, process for 10 minutes in canning jars in a water bath until the tops seal.
I’ll freeze a small batch and eat the rest. Maybe you’ll come for dinner?
Tips: Last week I used cantaloupe and did not use tomatoes or pineapple. I also substituted kumquat for ginger. You could also add thin slices of oranges and lemons instead of the lime and use 1/4 c. vinegar. Muy sabroso!
Candied ginger, my stash from Pittsboro, North Carolina, used with consideration.
I want to acknowledge two friends who gave me recipe inspiration: Natalie Klein from South Bend, Indiana, and David Levin from Oaxaca and Toronto. Natalie is a friend of 40+ years who shared her tomato ginger chutney recipe with me and I have adapted it many times, even canning and selling it.
Close-up of the fruit and spice medley
David (and friend Carol Lynne) returned from Southeast Asia a few months ago where they took cooking classes. David has made chutney ever since. He inspired me to try my own hand at the concoction.
Lime zest sits on pile of julienne white onions
More years ago than I care to count, I owned and operated a gourmet cookware shop, cooking school, and cafe. It’s in my DNA.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Food & Recipes, Photography
Tagged candied fruit, chutney, condiment, cook, eat, food, ginger, jam, Mango, Mexico, Oaxaca, papaya, pineapple, recipe, tomato