Green walnuts, harvested if possible on June 24th, i.e. St. John’s day, a good grappa, sugar, spices and lots of sunshine. These are the ingredients required to make Nocino (or ratafià), a liqueur known not only for its digestive properties but also for its delicious, unusual taste. According to legend, its original recipe is safeguarded in convents run by monks, but also in many homes of the Ticino area Nocino is prepared based on a recipe handed down from generation to generation. A time-honoured) tradition also re-interpreted by many wineries. Nocino is often offered in grottos and restaurants at the end of a good meal.
The Walnut, an important tree
In Italian Switzerland, the walnut was and is a widely diffused, long-lived plant that grows rapidly up to an altitude of roughly 1,200 meters. During past centuries it was considered a precious commodity and all of its parts were used. Harvesting took place in October and the fruit was either eaten in its natural state or pressed to obtain cooking oil or oil to illuminate houses or churches. The wood of the nut was used both as fuel and as a building material.
St. John’s Digestive
Nocino is a liqueur that has digestive properties, obtained by macerating green walnuts in grappa, sugar and spices. Dense, aromatic and deep brown in colour, Nocino is also known as ‘ratafià’ because, in the monastic world, when an agreement was signed at the end of a meeting, it was customary to drink a glass of the liqueur saying “rata fiat” (let it be ratified).
In Italian Switzerland, the custom of preparing a nut-based liqueur appears to have originated at the convent of the Capuchin Friars of Bigorio (Capriasca) who have been making it for over one hundred years based on a secret recipe. The practice of brewing Nocino then spread to other Ticino-based convents, where it was usual to offer visitors a small token glass of ratafià. The walnuts were also harvested by friars thanks to the traditional collection of alms by friars throughout the canton.
The population soon began to follow this tradition and still today, in many Ticino households, Nocino is prepared based on recipes handed down from family to family. For several decades, numerous wineries have also prepared this liqueur which is served at grottos and restaurants either to end a meal or as an addition to vanilla or walnut ice cream.
The walnuts that are infused in a distillate must be harvested while still green. According to tradition, the walnuts should be harvested on St. John’s Day (June 24th), preferably at night. However, harvesting can be postponed depending on seasonal trends: what matters is that no woody hull has yet formed (this can be checked using a needle).
Numerous recipes exist, differing both in terms of dosage and preparation, exist. Here is one of the many:
1 liter of grappa
8-10 green walnuts
500 g sugar (or less if a more bitter digestive is desired)
Spices (cloves, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, …)
The green walnuts are left to macerate in the grappa in a large, transparent glass jar with a wide mouth and a rubber seal (like those used for jam). After which sugar and several spices, including cloves, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg, are added. The jar is then left in the sun for 40 days. Care should be taken to mix the ingredients every day to ensure that the sugar dissolves. The mixture is then filtered, bottled and left to age for at least one year.