Thursday, April 14, 2016

Nettle Liqueur

Makers of homemade Italian liqueurs, rejoice! In 2014 the Aboca Museum in Tuscany released an English version of Renato Vicario’s 2011 treatise on Italian liqueurs. This new edition, entitled Italian Liqueurs: History and Art of a Creation, presents over 140 Italian liqueur recipes. This in and of itself warrants enthusiastic applause. But Vicario’s work also includes an excellent history of liqueurs; a section on methods and techniques; a concise botanical dictionary; a pharmaceutical glossary; and a comprehensive resource section to help the reader find herbs and spices. Like Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta, Vicario’s Italian Liqueurs represents an ark: his work preserves regional recipes for aperitifs, digestifs and bitters (amari) that, with time, risked disappearing.

Vicario organizes his collection of Italian liqueur recipes into five sections: Fruit; Berry; Citrus; Herbal; and Other. In each of these sections I found both the familiar and the very unfamiliar. Under his Fruit chapter, Vicario includes recipes for an apple, a cherry and a wild plum liqueur, but also instructions on how to make an apple seed and a peach stone liqueur. In his Citrus section, Vicario includes a recipe for limoncello (actually three different versions), Orange Elixir (my bottle will be ready in time for Christmas!), and Mother-in Law Milk (which is very similar to Liquore latte di vecchia (here)). In his catch-all Other section, Vicario shares recipes for nut, egg and spice liqueurs, and a recipe for Tomato Elixir made with green tomatoes and tomato leaves.

Italian Liqueurs’ largest—and to my mind, the most interesting—chapter covers 63 different herbal liqueurs. Vicario includes recipes for a diverse range of herbal aperitifs, digestifs and bitters such as: Absinthe Liqueur; Alpine Bitter; Artichoke Digestif; Cardoon Bitter; Carnation Liqueur; Eternal Youth Bitter; Juniper Essence; Melissa Water; Mugo Pine Elixir; Linden Liqueur; Piemontese Bitter; Rhubarb Tonic; Sunflower Liqueur; and Trappist Bitter. And these drinks are just the tip of the herbal liqueur iceberg.

Throughout Italian Liqueurs Vicario stresses the importance of carefully sourcing a liqueur’s ingredients. He writes: “…the most important part of liqueur preparation is the choice of the ingredients. You MUST use the freshest, best ripened, most organic and delectable herbs, plants and fruits you want to add to your liqueurs....Use everything local and in season: this is possibly the most important consideration in the selection of your ingredients and it cannot be stressed enough. Please do not make a strawberry liqueur in January, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere.”

As I reside in the Northern Hemisphere and with spring currently awakening, I decided to try Italian Liqueurs’ recipe for Nettle Liqueur. Stinging nettles abound in my neighborhood; a short walk down my street and into the woods yielded bags of young nettle buds.  For this recipe, however, you only need a couple of handfuls (handled with gloves, of course). Here is Vicario’s recipe for Nettle Liqueur.

1 liter of 190 proof alcohol
1 liter of de-mineralized water
600 grams of sugar
40 nettle fresh buds (top of the new growth) (Urtica dioica)
5 peppermint leaves (Mentha piperita)

Put the fresh leaves and buds in a jar with the alcohol for 8 days. Then make a syrup by boiling the water and the sugar until the sugar has dissolved, and let cool. Add the syrup to the alcohol mixture in the jar and let it steep for 1 day. Filter the mixture and bottle. Leave in a cool, dry place at least 1 week before consuming.

So how does a nettle liqueur taste? To me: herbaceous, but not too green, and sweet with a hint of mint. If you make this drink, watch the color of the liqueur change during its preparation from a beautiful deep emerald green to a bright olive.

Like the majority of recipes in Italian Liqueurs, making Nettle Liqueur is a snap. In the first half of his book, Vicario describes how to correctly prepare liqueurs and why he recommends certain ingredients like 190 proof alcohol and de-mineralized water. He also explains how and why you filter liqueurs.

I recommend Italian Liqueurs to anyone interested in making homemade liqueurs. (I ordered my copy from Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York.) Vicario’s knowledge and enthusiasm for these regional drinks shines throughout his book. He begins his work recounting his childhood memories of his Emilian great-grandmother rolling pasta, canning tomatoes sauce, and making the family’s liqueurs that, he writes, were absolutely necessary on a well-stocked table. “Who had ever heard of not serving a Nocino, or at least a Ratafià at the end of a meal?” Thankfully, Vicario has authored a book that preserves these regional Italian recipes thus permitting us to make and offer these gracious beverages to our friends and family.