Artusi’s Nocino – a spicy walnut liqueur
Saint days are not only times for rituals, celebrations and traditions but they are also handy seasonal reminders, like a bookmark in the calendar. San Giovanni or St John the Baptist day, June 24, is a perfect example. Being near the summer solstice, it’s a day that signifies midsummer and celebrates the bountiful summer season. St John the Baptist is Florence’s patron saint so on June 24 the Florentines are gearing up for a day off with an afternoon of gory sports performed by beefy tattooed Florentine men wearing historical costumes (a Renaissance tradition known as calcio storico), and an evening of fireworks and festivities.
In the countryside around Florence and even further a field in neighbouring regions like Umbria and Emilia-Romagna, this day marks another old tradition – making nocino (pronounced notch-ino) a syrupy, spice-filled walnut liqueur as dark as ink.
Noci – walnuts – are collected for making nocino when still un-ripe and bright green on the day of St John the Baptist. Walnuts, and especially their liqueur, have long been associated with witches’ spells and the midsummer itself is connected with mysterious rituals – this recipe is no exception. There is something about mixing together a large vat of spices and chunks of staining, unripe walnuts that has a touch of magic potion about it. Traditionally, the walnuts were collected the night of St John the Baptist by a woman. Climbing the tree barefoot, she would carefully choose the best fruit and leave them out at night. The next day, the dewy walnuts were then infused in a heady concoction until the eve of Ognissanti, All Saint’s Day, October 31.
This time last year, Marco and his cousin (although neither women nor barefoot) attempted their first nocino with walnuts from his cousin’s tree and when it came to looking up a recipe, we of course turned to our trusty “Artusi”, the 1891 cookbook of Pellegrino Artusi, my personal favourite source of traditional Italian recipes. Artusi’s recipe says to allow just forty days for the infusion, so we cracked it open at the beginning of August.
Artusi, who suffered from a “delicate stomach”, notes the digestive and tonic powers of this dark and sweet liqueur – it is the perfect end to those heavier meals later on in the year when the cooler months arrive.
Artusi’s Nocino or walnut liqueur
- 30 whole, unripe walnuts
- 1 ½ litres of alcohol, 95%
- 750 gr of white sugar
- 2 gr of ground cinnamon
- 10 whole cloves
- 400 ml of water
- Rind of 1 lemon (Artusi specifies one from the garden, anything organic will do as you’re using the rind)
Cut the walnuts into quarters (use gloves, walnuts stain a very dark brown and this takes days to come off!) and place together with the other ingredients in a large carboy (a flask with a large opening or glass jars with a total capacity of 4-5 litres could work too). Leave to infuse for forty days (if you want to do as witches do, leave it even longer, until October 31), shaking the bottle from time to time.
A couple of days before you’re ready to filter and drink the nocino, have a little taste. If it is too “spiritoso” as Artusi says (in other words, alcoholic), add a cup of water or two. Then, when the liqueur is ready, strain it first through a cloth, and if you want it very clear, strain again through paper, such as a coffee filter before bottling.
We found our nocino was quite bitter and very alcoholic, so more water was definitely needed, but this also depends on your tastes. Salute!