While some people eat four-horned snails to help keep arguments at bay and to avoid betrayals by loved ones for the forthcoming year, others send barefoot virgins up walnut trees after midnight on the eve of San Giovanni, Florence's patron saint celebrated on June 24, around the time of the summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night of the year.
San Giovanni is known in English as St. John the Baptist. He is said to have been related to Jesus as well as to have baptised him.
Because of the proximity to the summer solstice, ancient Celtic summer solstice rituals (think druids, witches, magic potions and fertility rites) are tied into Florence's celebrated patron saint's day and its overlay of Christian history. Centuries ago, the Celtic tradition burned dried herbs and attached them to crosses to keep evil spirits away on the night of San Giovanni. ‘Out with the old and in with the new': on the shortest night of the year, the Celts would pick the new harvest of herbs.
Florence now celebrates in a more modern way, with a spectacular fireworks display that lights up the river Arno, and a touch of history, with men parading around the city the afternoon of San Giovanni, blowing long horns and wearing plumed hats, tights and colourful bloomers. They are the 'San Giovanni men' and they march to the Baptistry.
The Baptistry of San Giovanni is located in the heart of Florence, next to the Duomo and in the pedestrian area of piazza del Duomo and piazza di San Giovanni. Built between 1059 and 1128, it is one of the oldest buildings in Florence.
And since the 24th is a local holiday, the night of the 23rd after midnight is a perfect time to go barefoot up your walnut tree to pick 24 of your best green ones to make a witchy potion of Nocino di San Giovanni in the small hours of the early morning.
While the vinegar made from young green walnuts is a good natural health remedy for sore throats, Nocino di San Giovanni is a natural health elixir for many physical ailments, as well as helping in difficult moments, warding off evil spirits and bad thoughts.
But remember: this potion must not be drunk before November 3 or the Celtic witches may come out again!
Here is my recipe for the Nocino di San Giovanni.
RECIPE Nocino di San Giovanni
24 noci verdi, green walnuts
Scorza di 2 limoni, zest of 2 lemons
4 chiodi di garofano, whole cloves
12 chicchi di caffè, coffee beans
2 stecche di vaniglia, vanilla pods
2 stecche di cannella, cinnamon sticks
2 litres of alcohol, 96 percent
500g zucchero, sugar
500ml acqua, water
Wait until after midnight on the night of June 23rd, kick off your heels, hitch up your skirt and climb your favourite walnut tree. Pluck off 24 of the finest-looking green fruits on it and secure into your skirt. (Some say they can read the future on the shortest night of the year. Maybe it is what they see from the tree-top, approaching over the horizon?)
It is said that after the longest day, herbs, fruits and seeds are at their most fragrant and flavourful. Note that at this stage, the green fruit resembles more of a light green, round and firm but moist baby melon, than a dry-husked walnut.
Pour the alcohol into large glass jars with enough room to add the rest of the ingredients. Starting with the lemons, wash their skins well, dry and then peel only the yellow zest of the lemons, leaving their pith on. Save the lemons for something else and add their zest to the alcohol. Split the vanilla pods lengthways down one side and scrape the seeds of the pod into the alcohol, before adding the whole scraped pods along with the cannella, chiodi di garofano and the chicchi di caffè.
Lastly, prepare the green walnuts: cut each one into quarters through the middle and you will see the beginnings of the walnut forming inside its moist, firm green husk. You will notice your hands staining a deep dark brown from the walnut juice: this is the rich colour your Nocino di San Giovanni will be. Add the 96 walnut quarters into the alcohol with the other aromatic ingredients, close with a lid and store in a cool, dark place for about four months. During this time, the flavours and colours will seep out and infuse with the alcohol.
After you have left the mixture for four months, measure and weigh the water and sugar (500g zucchero, 500ml acqua), put in a pot together and bring to a boil, simmering for 5 minutes to produce a sugar syrup. Then set aside to cool.
While the sugar-water mixture is cooling, strain off the dark aromatic liquid from the steeping mixture (discarding the walnuts, etc.). Pour the dark liquid into the cooled sugar syrup, stir gently and bottle. You have now created Nocino di San Giovanni: a deliciously fragrant, sticky, dark brown walnut liqueur to offer solace and protection during the difficult moments of the year to follow. Leave it to rest another week and have your first sip on November 3.