by Gareth Jones
A tradition so richly experienced on the festival eve of San Giovanni, better known as “St. John’s,” in Spilamberto (near Modena – Emilia-Romagna) had me transported me back to innocent childhood days in Wales. Straying across the fields from the parental home I’d live more in my grandmother’s old cottage – hers was once an inn on a long forgotten village green and was built using the village stocks as a door lintel into her dining room. So the story goes, mature hardwood had been short for building and everything was saved – including timbers from broken ships, recognised even then by their Lloyd’s number carved or burnt into the side. Grandma had one of those too – and stirring tales of bravery at sea to go with it.
Around this time (end-June/early-July), yet knowing nothing then of the Saint’s Day, we would pick ‘green’ walnuts – green skinned and soft before their hard shells formed below the fleshy outer casing.
These we would wash, dry and prick with a pin several times per nut. They would then be cooked in salted water, dried and let to cool before being set to cure in a vinegar sweetened with brown sugar – or perhaps it was molasses given the rich, dark colour. There are recipes going back through the ages – even Hannah Glasse in her The Art of Cookery wrote three. One each for ‘green’, ‘white’ and ‘black’ walnuts.
There would surely have been mace and nutmeg in Grandma’s recipe as there were her two favourite spices – she wore a whole nutmeg about her person, swearing it would ward off arthritis. At over 86 years when she died, arthritis was never one of her ailments.