I am an English-speaking, freelance food writer based in Rome. I love writing articles on various aspects of Italian culture.
Citrus, Herbs and Spices
Digestives or digestivo in Italian are alcoholic drinks made up of various herbs, dried roots and citrus fruits steeped in strong alcohol. Through a process of marinating in large demijohn sized bottles, often left in the sun, the essential elements of a mix of herbs is extracted into the liquid tincture and then later watered down, sweetened and finally filtered and bottled.
For most people perhaps the most familiar drink of this type is the commercially produced Vermouth an alcoholic drink that was sold initially as a sort of medicine to aid digestion using a blend of herbs and wine.
Italy is a long pendulous country of differing regions that were historically ruled by separate families and nobility with a series of different climates that in turn have markedly different regional cuisine. In the high mountains where the diet consisted of a lot of meat, digestive herbs were used to create herbal drinks that helped process the fatty dishes of the area while down on the coast citrus drinks enhanced the fish and clam based dishes.
Historically Monks and religious communities brewed beer and made other herbally efficacious beverages. In the past a toast was often taken to celebrate the signing of a treaty that brought peace between kingdoms, indeed an ancient Liqueur still exists in Abruzzo called Ratafià, historically taken once a treaty had been ratified by both parties.
Food in Italy
In the 1900’s the famous Italian cookery writer and traveller Pellegrino Artusi began to focus on his nations diet. He wrote three self published books and later works like, “The cuisine of weak stomachs” (La cucina degli stomachi deboli, Pub. 30th August 1930,) drew heavily on his earlier texts. Artusi was moved to start writing after a particularly rough trip in Italy. The story goes that he went out for a meal and ate Minestrone, a soup dish traditionally made from left overs, in a restaurant in Livorno, a port city just north of Rome. Later going home to his accommodation that night, he felt strong stomach pains. The next day he headed off back home to his wife Marietta to their family home in nearby Florence. Word later reached the city that cholera had broken out in Livorno. Fortunately he had only a mild form of the disease and was able to recover and indeed go on to write an improved recipe. After this near death experience he began to look at his home countries cuisine in detail in an almost scientific way. His texts include a whole chapter regarding recommended alcoholic drinks for gourmets feeling poorly. Sickly dinners should stick to white wines or, spumante a fizzy white vino and were only allowed small amounts of cognac for those suffering with a weak stomach.
Even today travelling across the country can still be a marathon for the digestive system of the hapless traveller. Alcoholic herbal spirits help aid digestion and are correlated with the local diet wisely using ingredients reliant on herbs native to the area for their efficacious effects.
Six More Italian Liqueurs To Try
- Genepy D'Alpe Liqueur
- Herba Luisa
- Zaff 99
- Boar's Tears
1) Genepy D'Alpe Liqueur
Alpine herdsmen have been known to tuck a bottle of this drink into their Lederhosen to keep them company while tending their flock in the Valtelline Mountains of Lombardy or the Apennine Mountains further south. A day walking with a backpack, up high can also generate a hearty appetite in the happy hiker too. In Abruzzo the delicious local cuisine consists of roasted meats and sugo and cheese covered polenta. This rich diet goes well with Genepy alpine liqueur, a tipple that will bring back memories of days up amongst fields of flowers, wild herbs and sun scorched jagged peaks. It is less sweet than many digestifs, and the flavour imparted by the herbs is reminiscent of Chamomile or Feverfew that in fact gives it a slightly bitter taste. However it has been appreciated since the Middle-ages for it's medicinal activity against " hot and cold " ailments.
Hunting for wild herbs is a demanding and for certain plant types in Italy, illegal pastime, so it is a relief to know that the ingredients for this rare beverage can be bought easily online to be combined with sugar and alcohol to create a wonderfully strong bitter sweet infusion.
Legend has it that in olden times, villagers collected the precious ferns wearing felt covered boots so as not to wake the fairy’s, elves and Barbegazi that spent nights working under moonlight cultivating the rare plants that are the basic ingredient of this elixir. Whatever the truth one only has to hold and sniff the wafting odour of a bag of dried crushed mountain fluff to know you are holding something special. Genepy flowers or Artemisia Glacialis, of the genus Artemisia ( L' Artemisia Spicata/L' Artemisia Mutellina) are also known as Wormwood. These tenacious fauna are wind pollinates and cling to bare patches of rock filled soil at altitudes above 2000 meters in the fresh breezy climate of the northern Alps and central Apennine ranges. There are a lot of different recipes but everyone has the same manufacturing process in common : steeping and distillation that creates different liqueurs according to the varieties of plants used.
1 liter of alcohol, 40 blades, 40 lumps of sugar and 40 days of rest.
Steep the herbs for 40 days in a demijohn with alcohol and with the sugar and then filter and bottle the liquid. Before trying it, allow the liquid to mature and ripen for a few weeks.
Wild Prune Liqueur
2) Prugnolino Liqueur and Bargnolino
It has a tart strong flavour and is sometimes added to port to add flavour and colour. Using wild prunes or sloes, this is a special winter warming tipple that is taken before and after a meal, it is guaranteed to warm one after a winter walk. This item is brewed all over Italy but is most common in Umbria in central Italy and in Sicilia in the south. The trick to making a nice batch is to use the smaller wild prunes referred to in English as sloe or more correctly using their Latin name Prunus spinosa, in central Italy the berries grow plentifully and are picked in the summer or autumn. It's delicious, but you have to be lucky enough to live in a place where you can pick small wild prunes. Bargnolino is identical to Prugnolino except gin is used as the steeping alcohol. The fruity Sloes are rich in Polyphenols a chemical that supposedly helps prevent fatty liver deposits building up.
500 grams, Prunus spinosa, wild prunes
500 grams. alcohol
1.5 liters of good white wine
800 grams of sugar
8 coffee beans
The wild prunes are infused in the alcohol with the coffee beans for 22 days. After 22 days dissolve the sugar in the wine by heating it slowly. Allow to cool and add to the prune infusion. Leave to infuse further for another 10 days. Finally, filter and bottle. Before enjoying, allow the liquid to ripen and mature for a few weeks.
3) Arancello Orange Liqueur
Is a strong orange flavoured Liqueur similar to Limoncello, (made using lemon peel), that takes it's flavour from the skin of large oranges that grow in the south of Italy. It has an intense aroma and is irresistibly sweet, it is tempting to drink in plentiful amounts but be warned it will leave one feeling tired and intoxicated if drunk to excess. It should be kept in the freezer and goes well with a cube of ice, dropped into a chilled or iced glass.
1 liter alcohol, use good quality vodka if needed
16 peeled fragrant oranges
1 liter water.
With a potato peeler take the peel of the oranges, being careful to cut the top layer very thinly taking only the orange peel part avoiding any of the white pith below which will impart an unwanted bitter flavour. It is essential that the oranges used are thick skinned, fresh and fragrant.Chop the skins and put them in alcohol in an airtight glass container and keep in the dark for a week. After this time, prepare a sugar syrup by dissolving sugar in warm water; and allow it to cool then add it to the filtered peel extract. Mix well and bottle ideally before tasting it, let it settle and mature for a few weeks and then drink it ice cold.
4) Herba Luisa Liqueur
A lemony dark green and brown coloured liquore that is made across Italy but is common in Latina and Naples. Made from an non native imported herb, Latin name Aloysia citrodora originally from Latin America, that is now cultivated in Italy, it has numerous properties but is especially beneficial against inflammation.
250 ml of alcohol at 96 °
350 ml of water
250 grams of sugar
40 leaves of lemon verbena
1 organic lemon
Clean the citronella leaves with a damp cloth, put them in a glass jar, add the very thin lemon rind (using only the yellow part, the white part would make the liqueur bitter). Cover with alcohol and close the jar tightly. Leave to infuse for about 15 days in a cool place and shake the jar once a day. After 15 days, prepare a sugar syrup by, boiling water and sugar in a saucepan, wait for the liquid to cool and, mix the syrup in with the infusion of alcohol and filter with a gauze, bottle and close the bottle tightly. Wait fo 20 to 30 days before trying it and allow to mature.
5) Zaff 99 Liqueur
A luxurious warming drink made from saffron which gives it a vivid yellow colour. It takes its name from the 99 fountains dotted around the nearby city of L'Aquila. It tastes amazing and warms both the throat and stomach while the aroma of the rare flower fills the sinus. It’s also great for adding extra flavour to Rissotto dishes. It is made exclusively in Navelli AQ a high mountain village famous for its cultivation of this purple bulb.
The original plant was brought from Spain to Italy, via a Dominican monk, around 1230 and it has been now been cultivated in this area for many centuries. As for the elusive Zaff99 it is possible to buy bottles direct at the annual food festival held in July or August in the main village piazza but it is truly a very rare brew and reliant on the harvest of this incredibly delicate herb. As it is very hard to find a fairly approximate substitute that tastes similar can be found by drinking Strega a commercial Liqueur that contains saffron among 70 other herbs.
Only flower stigmas are collected with the rest of the plant discarded, the finished product can appear on the market as filaments or in powder form with an orange-red in color, with a particular odor, with a bitter and strongly aromatic flavor; the red of the stigmas, in contact with liquid, produces an intensely yellow colour.
This rare flora has a whole heap of medicinal properties, an appetite stimulant, a cough suppressant, gingival analgesic, a stimulant of gastric motility and finally as an aphrodisiac. Brimming with lots of vitamin A, B1 and B2, it not only helps heal ulcers but seems to strengthen the brain and memory too, perhaps a good reason to pour a glass or two over your favourite ice cream and enjoy.
6) Boar's Tears
Four pawed wild boar flock over the hilly forested terrain of the Umbrian region of central Italy. At certain times of the year especially around November many of these wild piggies are culled. The meat is used to make sausages and tomato based sauces that are served with pasta at local food festivals or Sagra, where the dish is washed down with strong local red wines. In the area the town of Norcia is famous for its boar meat products and now also has a growing chocolate confectionary industry too.
In a nearby town called Cascia a local producer Giusto Magrelli in 1999 invented "Lacrime di Cinghiale" translated into English as Boars Tears, an artisan locally made product, it is similar to Swiss chocolate liqueurs but what makes this version special is that it uses locally grown saffron added to the chocolate to enhance the flavours of this special bottled beverage.
But why are boars shedding tears?.
Earthquakes have rocked the Abruzzo and Umbria regions in the recent past and sales of the bottle help fund rebuilding of areas damaged during the last seismic events.
The Treaty Drink Ratafia
The ink is dry, the pact is sealed and the glasses are filled to toast the agreement. In Italy in this situation the glasses are probably full of a digestive called Ratafià. Invented by monks in the 1600’s it is a drink made from sour cherries, apricot or almonds mixed with sugar and red wine. A complex and irresistible mix of flavours, it is found throughout the peninsular but is especially common in Abruzzo a region once dominated by kingdoms and mountaintop castles. It is still traditionally taken to celebrate the signing of business deal or house purchase.
North or South?
Links To Online Sellers.
While it’s great fun making your own spirit based liqueurs for some of those mentioned in this article it might be easier buying online. Here are some links to online sources.
- Genepy D'Alpe Liqueur
Distillerie Schenatti - A family run firm that make this liquore in the north of Italy.
- Liquore Bacche di Prugnolino
Prugnolino is a liqueur, made with prunus spinosa berries. It is rich and delicious due to its digestive properties.
- Arancello Biologico
Organic orange liqueur.
- Herba Luisa
A herb liquor with a lemon scent.
- Strega (not Zaff99!)
A link to the commercial Strega product. For Zaff99 you would need to travel to Abruzzo and drink it at the saffron festival held in Navelli AQ.
- Lacrime di Cinghiale
- Giusto Magrelli - Boars Tears, a link to buy direct.
"He was a wise man who invented beer."
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Adele Barattelli
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 12, 2019:
These do sound like delicious liqueurs. I've never heard of any of them before. It was very interesting to read about their background.