Patron saints. Every Italian town has one and a local public holiday for celebrating their heavenly protector to boot. Turin, my adopted city of over ten years, is no exception. Here, San Giovanni Battista or John the Baptist is venerated with an evening farò or bonfire on the 23rd June (St. John’s Eve) and fireworks (or, in this year’s case, a drone light show) to conclude celebrations the following evening. In addition to the blazing bonfire, another ritual takes place on the night of the 23rd – the harvesting of green walnuts to make the liqueur nocino.
If all these festivities don’t appear to be particularly saintly there’s a very simple reason. The Gospel of Luke established John the Baptist’s nativity as exactly six months before Christ’s and the 24th June just happens to coincide with the summer solstice, a period people throughout the ages have perceived as a time of heightened cosmic power, channelling both good and evil. After the Italian peninsula’s adoption of Christianity, the Church went to great lengths to make midsummer celebrations more Christianised or focused on the figure of John the Baptist. Yet, rituals with clear pagan origins continue to be practiced in and around this feast day all over Italy.
One object of pre-Christian veneration was the walnut tree. Widespread throughout Europe, this tree has been valued since ancient times for its wood, nutritional value and the relative ease in harvesting its nuts. A giver of life and abundance, the ancient Greeks and Romans associated the tree and its fruit with fertility. Made of two equal halves, walnuts were scattered at wedding banquets. Pliny the Elder described them as symbols of marriage and their resultant offspring. Cults and revelries inevitably developed around this magical tree, notably in Benevento (present day Campania) where its great walnut tree was said to be the site of witches’ gatherings. Local bishop Barbatus, citing the questionable forms of worship being practiced near the tree, would order its destruction in the 7th century.
Tree worship was eventually stamped out in Europe as idolatrous by Church authorities but walnut trees continued to be associated with magical protective powers. In Bavaria, households would partially burn walnut branches in their Easter Sunday fires and lay them on their hearths as protection against lightning. In central France, it was also common practice to jump around Midsummer fires with a walnut branch in hand which was then nailed to the doors of cowhouses, as protection for the animals inside. Superstitions with a view of the walnut tree as a bad omen or evil existed too. In the Abruzzo region of Italy, Canziani recorded the belief among locals that whoever planted a walnut tree would have a short life. Some Italian proverbs also warn against the dangers of planting a walnut tree too close to home or falling asleep under one.
Nocino, the green walnut liqueur traditionally made on Midsummer or St. John’s Eve, is generally thought to be a version of a walnut-based drink once made by the Picts in Great Britain. Believing walnuts to be magical and medicinal, Druids used this dark brown liquid during religious ceremonies to cure the ill. This drink or potion made its way to Celtic France and to this day, a similar drink called liqueur or brou de noix is made in many French regions. At some point, this practice of infusing green walnuts came to the Italian peninsula where it became known as nocino or, in the case of Piedmont, ratafià di noci (walnut ratafià).
Inspired by the towering walnut trees that line our property in the Monferrato countryside, I couldn’t help but try my hand at making this mysterious potion in the lead up to Midsummer or St. John’s Day for the first time last June. Here’s what two of my favourite historical cookbook authors, Pellegrino Artusi and nineteenth century Savoy court cook Giovanni Vialardi, had to say about making this drink:
750. Nocino (Walnut Liqueur)
Nocino is a liqueur that should be made toward the middle of June, when the walnuts have not yet fully ripened. It has a pleasant taste, aids digestion, and has a tonic effect.
30 walnuts (with the husk)
1 ½ litres of spirits
750 g powdered sugar
2 g minced ‘queen’ cinnamon
10 whole cloves
4 decilitres of water
the peel of one lemon, cut into small pieces
Cut the walnuts into four sections and infuse them with other ingredients in a demijohn or a four to five litre flask. Seal it tightly and keep in a warm place for forty days, shaking it every now and then.
After the forty days have gone by, strain the liquid through a cloth and then, to clarify it completely, filter it through cotton or paper. Make sure to taste it a day or two in advance, however, to see if it is too strong, in which case you can add a cup of water.
288. Ratafià di noci stomatico
Take 12 still-green walnuts which can easily be pierced by a pin. Pound in a mortar and place in a bottle with a litre of spirits, 1 gram ofcloves and an equal amount of cinnamon. Leave to infuse for 55 days, ensuring that you shake the bottle every eight days. Once the walnuts have been removed, add 6 hectograms of sugar dissolved in 2 fifths of a litre of water to the spirits. Filter liquid with absorbent paper and store in bottles.
Interestingly enough, neither man mentions some of the superstitions that I’ve come across about the making of the liqueur. According to some sources regarding harvesting rites, only female virgins, barefoot and dressed in white, are supposed to climb the tree after dark on the night of the 23rd. The number of walnuts gathered must be an uneven one and the young maidens entrusted with the task of collecting the green walnuts must be careful not to touch the fruit with any other material except wood. The walnuts are then left out overnight to absorb the heightened cosmic powers with beneficial properties. The next day, the dewy walnuts are quartered, covered in alcohol alongside aromatic spices like cloves and cinnamon and left to infuse for at least 40 days. Some traditions, however, call for the precious walnuts to be steeped in spirits until another important date in the Christian (and pagan!) calendars, the eve of Ognissanti, All Saint’s Day, the 31st October.
At this point in my life, I’m obviously no longer a virgin. I certainly did not dress in white, let alone walk barefoot as I harvested my green walnuts last June either. My male husband also offered to help while I was scouting our trees for the best specimens and let’s just say I did not have the heart to make harvesting a female-only endeavour. As for waiting till after dark, I also forgot to do that. I was, however, careful to pick an uneven number (21, instead of the 12 and 30 Vialardi and Artusi respectively called for in their recipes) of green noci and to refrain from touching them with anything other than wood. In the end, I combined various elements from both Artusi’s and Vialardi’s recipes and came up with the one below. I’m looking forward to making this aromatic, inky-brown liqueur, the perfect way to conclude a long and filling meal (see this post about Italian drinking rituals), again to celebrate Midsummer/St. John’s Eve.
- 21 green walnuts
- 1 litre pure edible alcohol (in Italy, 190-proof/95 per cent alcohol is easily available)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- the peel of one organic lemon
- 4-5 whole cloves
- 600 g sugar
- 400 mL water
Wash the green walnuts and pat them dry with a teatowel. Cut the walnuts into four sections with a very sharp knife. Place in a large five litre glass container, alongside the cinnamon stick, whole cloves and lemon peel. Add the alcohol, seal tightly and leave to infuse in a cool, dark place for fifty-five days, shaking it every now and then.
After the fifty-five days have gone by, strain the liquid of the walnuts, spices and lemon peel. Discard solids and continue filtering the liquid until all traces of sediment have been removed.
Prepare a syrup made by combining 600 g sugar and 400 mL water in saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and leave to cool completely before adding to the walnut and spice-infused alcohol. Bottle and store in a cool, dark place until at least the eve of Ognissanti, All Saint’s Day, the 31st October, before serving for the first time.
NB: If 190-proof/95 per cent alcohol is not available where you live, you can still try your hand at making nocino with a neutral 80 to 100-proof vodka or grappa. Here is David Lebovitz’s liqueur de noix recipe for doing so.
Sources and other useful links:
Pellegrino Artusi , Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well
Manuela Fiorini, Ti do una noce! Storia, leggende e ricette del frutto più magico
Tuscan-based Amy Gulick of The Bittersweet Gourmet published this wonderfully informative essay about Italian Midsummer food and drink rituals on her blog, La Notte di San Giovanni, last June.
La Stampa, San Giovanni Battista, le radici antiche della Festa di oggi
Karima Moyer-Nocchi, Chewing the Fat: An Oral History of Italian Foodways
Fulvio Piccinino, Saperebere
Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food
Another Tuscan-based blogger, Giulia Scarpaleggia of Juls’ Kitchen, also tried her hand at making Artusi’s nocino in the lead up to Midsummer a couple of years ago.
Giovanni Vialardi, Cucina Borghese Semplice ed Economica
D. C. Watts, Dictionary of Plant Lore