It is midnight on the 23rd June, mid way through a careless summer. The air is redolent with the smell of ripening fruit on the branches above my head, mingled with something more visceral beneath my feet. A stirring breeze gently lifts the leaves of the walnut trees. Underfoot, my flimsy rope sandals crack the fallen, dry leaves into shards.
Is it my inflamed imagination or do I hear a cackle of laughter, a gargle caught in the back of the throat from something - somewhere - a little less than human? It is Midsummer’s Eve, the feast day of San Giovanni, St John, and I am in a copse of the famed walnut trees in the vicinity of Ponte dei Santi, Altavilla Irpina. The weight of history hangs heavy, as do the imaginary cries of the witches: whether in anguish, regret or revenge, I cannot tell you.
Ponte dei Santi, The Bridge of Saints, over the River Sabato, Altavilla Irpina.
Here, they tell stories of sorceresses, of their potency and their suffering at the hands of the Inquisition. On the night of the 23rd, witches gathered under the walnut trees in the ‘stretto di barba’, close to Altavilla, to practice their incantations, spells and curses. And so it is here, on the stoke of midnight, that, depending on the dosage, 19 or 39 walnuts must be picked to make the healing liqueur of Nocino.
Over the centuries, the Catholic religion has thrown a veil over medieval rites and cults that recall pagan, even Celtic, myths; given them saintly names and superimposed festivals upon their observances. Here, I think the patina of Christianity is so thin as to be almost invisible. What has the Feast of St John, San Giovanni, to do with troubled witches and potions that heal?
This connection takes us back to Salome’ who triumphantly sought and received the head of John the Baptist. She, surely, was history’s first witch condemned to the winds by St John’s last breath. And he, St John, became the patron saint of healing. The Crusaders chose St John the Baptist as the Patron Saint for their hospices and adopted the eight-pointed White Cross of Amalfi as their emblem.
I am indebted to La Pro Loco Altavillese for the recipe for Nocino.
The Pro Loco of Altavilla Irpina is a very active, diligent
organisation: they have an annual Palio, and many sagre and festivals. They have created the 'Museo della Gente Sensa Storia'- a repository of artefacts, records and displays of daily life in the area.
(Many Italian towns and small cities have a “Pro Loco”, an association of volunteers that works with schools, local businesses and institutions in order to enhance the town, record and commemorate its history and provide assistance to visitors.)
Over the night of the 23rd June, leading into the 24th, the Pro Loco Altavillese re-enacts the events that mark the dark history of the medieval era: La Notte delle Streghe, 'Night of the Witches'. Using ancient writings as the reference point, as well as costumes, music and theatre, Altavilla Irpina goes back in time. Typical fare of the region is showcased - Nocino, Greco di Tufo and other Irpinia wines, as well as biscuits with walnuts and hazelnuts. Being Italy, the highlight of the festival, is the crowning of Miss Strega.
THE RECIPE FOR NOCINO.
"Come preparare Il Nocino, il liquore delle streghe che fa digerire."
Photo credit: wikipedia
At midnight on the 23rd June collect 39 small, green walnuts. The next morning, wipe them well with a damp cloth and allow to dry. Wearing gloves, because the peel will stain your fingers brown, cut each walnut into quarters. Put them into a sterilised jar with a close fitting lid and pour 1 litre of 'pure' alcohol over. Use grappa or a neutral flavoured vodka, if you can't obtain the 90 proof alcohol. Add to the jar 3 sticks of cinnamon, 6 whole cloves and the zest of 1 lemon. Seal the jar and leave out in the sun for 40 days. If you remember, shake the jar once or twice a week.
At the end of this time, add 600 g white sugar and shake to dissolve. Leave, again in the sun, for another two weeks, but this time, shaking daily. Now you can filter and bottle the liquid into a dark bottle and leave in a cool, dark place. Your Nocino will be ready to drink by the evening of 3rd November. (I make this liqueur when I can get green walnuts, but I must admit I usually leave the bottle on the window ledge, lest I forget the daily shaking. Does this make it less efficacious? I can't tell you.)
Photo Credit: Pro Loco Altavillese. Window detail of the Aragonese Palazzo Baronale where my father went to school.
My parents came from here, from Altavilla Irpina, this little town in the fertile Apennine Mountains of Campania, no more than 70 km from Naples. It is a very ancient town, once known as Poetilia and mentioned by Virgil in his Aeneid. The ‘modern’ name derives from the Norman rulers, the Hauteville family, who came to appreciate the cool greenery of the area and who kept the symbol of the wolf, namesake of the Irpini, an ancient Oscan tribe, who inhabited the area.
Like all Italians, my family is preoccupied with discussions of digestion (see previous post: BITTERSWEET: THE ITALIAN LOVE AFFAIR WITH AMARO, Jan 9th). And so, from my extended family, there are many recipes I could offer you for a digestivo made at home: each of them simplicity itself, but the waiting that lies ahead means that so many modern people just can’t be bothered.
You will need a couple of recipes. You're welcome.
At home, we have two long hedges of bay – I use the leaves nearly every day. Because they are fresh and not the useless, dry cardboard ones from the supermarket, go easy – they are very pungent. The liqueur is very herbaceous and earthy.
DIGESTIVO ALL'ALLORO: MADE FROM BAY LEAVES
To make 1 litre:
40 leaves of fresh bay, washed and dried thoroughly
500 ml ‘pure’ alcohol – or, use either a neutral grappa or a straight vodka
500 ml water
500 gr Demerara sugar
Put all the leaves in a clean jar that has a tight seal. Cover with the alcohol and allow to steep for 40 days in a cool, dark place such as a cupboard away from the stove. At the end of this time, make a simple syrup with the water and sugar. Allow it cool completely. Pour this over the leaves. Leave for 24-48 hours, then decant into bottles, filtering the liquid very carefully. Keep the digestivo in the freezer, the high alcohol content means it won’t freeze or keep it in the fridge.
Serve after a meal over ice or straight. I love the viscosity and the intense green.
Liquore al finocchietto
By contrast, this liqueur is the palest of straw colour and like the Bay Leaf Liqueur is around 30% Alc. by volume.
Photo credit: Wild fennel in flower in a friend's garden. Look along the verges of roads for the plant, growing wild. Or plant some - the flower itself is fragrant and refreshing in a salad and, of course, the fennel seed is invaluable in Italian cooking, particularly, the cuisines of the south.
Packets of seeds are easily found in nurseries or at Mercato, Campbelltown.
My recipe for finocchietto is written in the hand of an ancient relative, sadly, not signed. I will render it faithfully.
Take a handful of wild fennel flowers which you will wash and dry very carefully. Add a pinch of fennel seed, not too many as they make the liqueur too heavy. Add also a pinch, if you like, of anise seeds. Pour the alcohol (maybe, 500 ml?) over these elements and leave for a couple of weeks. (I’d say 30 days). After this period, make a syrup of equal parts water and sugar. (let’s say, 250 g white or raw sugar dissolved in 250 ml water). Filter carefully into clean bottles and keep in a cool, dark place. You can drink this straight away, but always very cold.
And I should give you my family's recipe for Limoncello. So many pages are written about making this essential liqueur from Amalfi, and yet, it is simple in the extreme.
LIMONCELLO FATT' IN CASA
A family recipe for Limoncello
We can't get the Sfusato d'Amalfi lemons, but home grown, untreated lemons with a thick skin will do. Play around with mandarin peel, orange or even grapefruit. If you mix the peels, you make 'agrumello'.
1 lt 90 proof alcohol - we use home made grappa, don't ask
8-10 lemons, untreated, zest only, no white pith
700 g sugar
700 ml water
Zest the lemons, taking care to leave the white pith behind. Put into a covered jar and cover with the alcohol. Leave for 8 days at least, longer if you can. After this time, strain the infusion and mix with a cold sugar syrup made by dissolving the sugar in boiling water. Leave, at least, for another 8 days and strain again through a very fine cloth. That's it.
And so finally, to that most adult of soft drinks, Chinotto.
The following is my recipe for a Chinotto cordial.
Firstly, select your spices:
You must have: Liquorice root (or powder) for the bitterness. Black peppercorns. Coriander seeds. Cinnamon sticks. Star Anise.
You may like to add: Dried mandarin peel (sold at Asian groceries). Juniper berries. Cloves. Green Cardamom. Black cardamom for smokiness.
Now, choose your herbs:
Rosemary with stem. Bay leaves with stem
But perhaps also: Lemon thyme. Sage. Lemon or lime leaves.
Choose your citrus:
Chinotto (if you are blessed). Pink grapefruit * essential for the bitterness. White grapefruit * essential for the bitterness. Oranges. Lemons.
Perhaps also: Mandarin peel. Unblanched Almonds
Set your oven on high.
Cut up the fruit and combine with your spices and chosen herbs. Put into the oven and allow at least a few pieces of fruit to become quite dark in colour. This caramelisation will add to the ‘toffee’ bitterness, but also deepen the colour of the cordial.
Meanwhile dissolve 2 cups Demerara sugar in boiling water and pour this over the fruit. Store in the fridge in a glass jar making sure the top layer of fruit is covered with liquid. I hold the fruit down in the liquid with a small saucer.
After a month or so, strain the liquid and mix, to your taste, with soda or tonic water.
Or make a ‘ginotto’ with cordial, gin, soda or tonic.
And there you have it. It takes forty days to make something original, unique to your family. It's worth it.