Originally written on June 23, 2020. Updated 2023
Patron saints. Every Italian town has one and a local public holiday for celebrating their heavenly protector. In some italian regions, San Giovanni Battista or John the Baptist, is venerated with evening bonfires or fireworks and the night between 23 and 24 June, is also linked to the preparation of a culinary specialty handed down from ancient times: the harvesting of green walnuts to make the liqueur nocino.
Many families still preserve the “secret family recipe” of nocino, a liqueur made from green walnuts, often enriched with those particular herbs or spices that make their liqueur unmistakable. But if there is a characteristic that puts everyone in agreement, it is the time linked to its preparation, linked to the night of San Giovanni and that of Ognissanti, on November 1. Always in Italy…there is another curious tradition linked to this night and involved white eggs and water…
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. After the Italy’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 the country.
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. Symbol of life and abundance, the ancient Greeks and Romans associated the tree and its fruit with fertility and, 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 (in present day Campania region) where its great walnut tree was said to be the site of witches’ gatherings. However, 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 stables, as protection for the animals inside. Superstitions with a view of the walnut tree as a bad omen or evil existed too. Some Italian proverbs also warn against the dangers of planting a walnut tree too close to home or falling asleep under it.
Nocino, or “witches’ liqueur”, is one of those recipes that reminds us how much in the past our ancestors were linked to nature and its cycles, because in order to prepare it, it was necessary to respect the days of collection of the walnuts and the end of preparation: the feast of San Giovanni and Ognissanti, the days when the veil between the world of the visible and the invisible became thinner. The origins of the nocino are very ancient, and it was consumed both among the ancient Romans and the Celtic tribes.
It 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 sort of 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.
According to the ancient Italian tradition, nocino should be prepared by an expert woman. Only female virgins, barefoot and dressed in white, are supposed to climb the tree after dark on the night of the 23rd, and collect the precious fruits with her bare hands, without using tools that could ruin the fruits and disperse their precious properties. The walnuts (strictly odd-numbered!) 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 together with 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.
The liqueur produced was able, according to local beliefs, to bring health, well-being and wealth.
The walnut was therefore a tree linked to the female world and to witches in particular. And thanks to this “witches’ tree” it was possible to prepare a “magical” mixture made of unripe nuts, prepared by women and known to drive away the evils that afflicted the rural populations of past times. In fact, the healings were considered magical at the time and what we call “medicine” today was for our ancestors the result of strange recipes jealously guarded by women who knew the mysterious art of herbs, that were the so-called witches.
Husks of unripe walnuts macerated in the spirit (alcohol) produced an alcoholic extract with numerous medicinal properties: it was digestive, antiparasitic, but also it eradicated fungi, bacteria and viruses and killed intestinal worms, and it is easy to understand how, until the Middle Ages, a drink with virtues so precious for health, could be considered as a “miraculous” mixture worthy of crossing the centuries through the transmission of family recipes, from generation to generation.
Nocino is a liqueur that should be made in this period, toward the middle of June, when the walnuts have not yet fully ripened. Below a basic recipe.
• about 30 walnuts (with the husk and strictly odd-numbered!)
• 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
• Optional (but recommended): additional herbs or spices according to personal taste or family traditions
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 this period, prepare the syrup with water and sugar and then let it cool. Strain the liquid through a cloth and then, to clarify it completely, filter it through cotton or paper. Then let the liqueur age in a cool place away from light until the night of October 31st.
Images from web – Text in collaboration – Anya & Danijel