One of the archipelago’s most important activities in economic and historical terms owes its prominence to a miniscule animal, the cochineal, which came to the Islands from America and was cultivated on cactus plantations in the 19th century. Cochineals are used to extract carmine, a natural dye that is famous across the globe, used in areas such as cosmetics, food or textiles. A product with Protected Designation of Origin that brings colour to the world from the Canary Islands.
From Mexico to the fields of the Canary Islands
Cochineal dye is only extracted from inside the female cochineal, whose larva sticks into the cactus pad, where it grows to adulthood and dies. These cacti came to the archipelago from Mexico at the start of the conquest of the American continent. But cochineal cultivation did not emerge as a major economic and export activity of the Canary Islands until well into the 19th century, when the Islands’ trade with the outside world was legalised. From this moment on, cochineal dye began to be successfully exported to the textile industries of France and the United Kingdom. This is how it gradually became the main economic activity of the Islands, until synthetic dyes were discovered. At this point, bananas and tomatoes took over as the main Canarian export products.
From the 19th century to the present day
One and a half centuries later, cochineal was still the traditional economic activity in the villages of Guatiza and Mala, on Lanzarote. They were almost the last redoubt of the cochineal and the culture surrounding it, maintaining a very typical, singular landscape that identifies the north of Lanzarote. The natural red-coloured dye from this insect was used to tint beverages and foodstuffs, and to make cosmetic products.
The deep roots of cochineal cultivation - which appeared to be on the road to extinction at the start of the 21st century - in the culture of the local farmers managed to sustain the activity in the Canary Islands. In fact, it is currently recognised by the European Union with the Protected Designation of Origin name of Cochinilla de Canarias, as this archipelago is the only European region where cochineal is produced for commercial purposes.
The cochineal harvest
A large spoon is used to harvest the cochineals from the pad of the cactus plant. The largest cochineals are selected and then placed on boards to dry. Two weeks later, the cochineals are cleaned thoroughly, and subsequently stored in canvas sacks to allow them to transpire and thus prevent rotting.
The part of the adult harvested cochineals that is alive when they are placed on the boards is used for breeding purposes. This is achieved by placing them inside bags weighing 50 grams, which are tied up and taken back to the prickly pear plantation. These bags are distributed over the cacti, on first year’s crops. This is done at the end of winter, in March, with the aim of obtaining three to four harvests during the summer. The dried cochineal, meanwhile, is used to make the red dye that colours beverages, foodstuffs, cosmetics and even artisanally-produced fabrics produced on the Islands themselves.
Unique quality, thanks to the best climate in the world
The high quality that differentiates Canarian cochineal from that obtained in other regions is due to the fact that it is cultivated on a single host, the cactus plant Opuntia ficus indica, and with a single type of insect, the cochineal Dactylopius coccus. Both are well-adapted to the conditions on the Canary Islands, the soil and climate of which promote low humidity and a high concentration of carminic acid. And the islands’ farmers follow a process that is very dear to them, which includes natural drying based solely on sunshine, with no chemical components at all.
Packaged in the archipelago
The surface area where Canarian cochineal is cultivated now includes estates on most of the islands. As a result, every year the breeding cycle of this insect is repeated, and it is harvested with great care, when producers search for it among the silky white secretion it produces as a defence against atmospheric factors.
Naturally, authentic Canarian cochineal is 100% produced, prepared and packaged in the territory of the Islands, as established by the conditions of the Protected Designation of Origin label, DOP Cochinilla de Canarias. A traditional production process full of Canarian identity and colour.