There are many recipes in Italian cuisine related to ancient traditions, popular beliefs and even magic rituals. One of the most fascinating is linked to the preparation of nocino, a dark brown liqueur from the Emilia-Romagna region, made from unripe green walnuts.
Its preparation is shrouded in an aura of mystery (as is the walnut tree), linked to witches and nighttime.
Its origins are uncertain; it’s known that several countries in Europe used walnut liqueurs, and nocino was probably introduced to the Modena area from France. An ancient Roman document cites a population from Brittany drinking, on June 24, “a dark walnut liqueur from the same cup.”
When the Romans switched to Christianity, June 24 became the night of St. John the Baptist.
And today, tradition still dictates the night of San Giovanni as the canonical date to collect the unripe walnuts to make nocino (herbalists call it ‘balsamic time’). According to tradition, it was the woman deemed the most expert in the preparation to climb the trees barefoot and pick up the best walnuts using only her hands, careful not to ruin the skin.
Why June 24? It is said that it is during this time of the year that the fruit of the walnut has its greatest fragrance, tissues filled with lymph, cells richest of essential oils, active ingredients and vitamins.
If you feel an icy wind around you, don’t be (too) scared: it’s the witches who, like every year, gather on this night under the walnut trees, traditionally associated to evil, to prepare their potions.
After harvesting, the nuts were left exposed to dew for one night, and were put in infusion the following day. Their preparation ended on October 31, the eve of All Saints’ Day.
Ordine del Nocino Modenese is an association based in Spilamberto (province of Modena), which, since 1978, promotes the traditional Nocino of Modena. According to the association, the ingredients you need for the recipe are as follows:
1 liter of alcohol (95°), not flavored
1-1,2 kg walnuts (33-35 walnuts approximately, depending on the size, but always in odd numbers). The walnuts used must be untreated , and must be picked between June 6-24.
Once collected, the walnuts must be cut into four parts and placed in glass containers together with the sugar, which should stay in the sun for 1-2 days. Then alcohol, and any optional aromas (cloves, lemon peel and cinnamon), can be added.
The product should be partially exposed to the sun, occasionally opened and stirred, and filtered no earlier than 60 days.
The Order suggests to use dark glass containers and refine the product in small wooden barrels.
It also says that nocino should be stored in a cool place for a minimum of 12 months in order to fully appreciate all its organoleptic characteristics, although others say you can open it at Christmas.
Today we drink Nocino as a digestive; in the past, it was consumed as an energy booster.