Monday, December 12, 2011

Bargnolino – Sloe berries

Italians like to make their own liqueurs. From mid November little vans parked by the roadside sell crates of lemons from Sicily, Campania and Liguria. It’s a sure sign that it’s time to make the annual supply of limoncello. In June, 70-year-old Italians clamber up trees for fresh green walnuts to make a liqueur known as nocino. In the early summer they will take a trip to the forests for wild strawberries, in September it’s grape lees for making grappa and in late autumn, early winter it’s sloe berries that are the focus of attention.

Every region has its own particular after-dinner preferences. And every Italian thinks that they harbour the secret to the best liqueur in town. In that respect, I’m no different.  Through a process of trial and error I think I can make a bottle of limoncello that can compete with the very best. This weekend it was bargnolino that had me mixing and bottling into the small hours of the morning. The secret to bargnolino, however, is not in the method. The secret to good bargnolino is nerve. 

Bargnolino, an after-dinner digestive, is made from sloe berries which grow on spiny shrubs throughout the Tuscan-Emilian Apennine area. This drink is widely made at home and its popularity seems to be growing by the year. In Ivvacari, they hold a bargnolino competition which takes place during the salami festival. He (or she) who is judged to make the finest bargnolino is crowned King of the Sloe! I’m fixing to run next year.

The key to this liqueur is collecting the berries when they are just right. The season begins in October and can, in some years, run through as late as mid-December, depending on the weather. The colder it is, the sooner the berries will ripen. The optimum time is after the first heavy frost. The berries should be soft to the touch, to the point where they stain your hand as you collect them. Most give in to their impatience. They succumb to the fear that if they wait, there won’t be a kilo of sloe berries to be found anywhere within a 100km radius. And so they go picking long before the berries have reached their best. Like I said, it’s a question of nerve.

This year, the weather has been particularly mild. It didn’t rain throughout August and well into September. Throughout October and the first half of November the berries were smaller than usual and firm to the touch – not exactly what you are looking for. So (nerves of steel) I waited… and waited, well aware it could be too late. But, if willing to take it, it’s a risk that can really pay off. I picked 8 kilos of berries in a place high above Morfasso in the lower Apennines a couple of weeks back. They were soft to the touch, perfect for bargnolino. The hint of envy on the faces in the bar was clear for all to see. All that’s left is for the King of Bargnolino to collect his Crown!   

Here’s the standard recipe for you. Experiment and make it your own.

Makes approximately 2 litres

1kg of sloe berries
1 litre of pure alcohol (or strong vodka or a dry grappa)
500 ml of Italian red wine (a fizzy Guttornio if you can find it)
A generous ½ kilo of sugar


Lightly wash the berries discarding any debris such as stray twigs and leaves. Place the berries in a small demijohn (or a large glass jar with a lid) and cover with the alcohol. Seal the jar and place in a dark closet or under the stairs. Leave for 60 days, but remember to give the contents a good shake every 2 or 3 days.

After 60 days, strain the liquid through a muslin cloth and then add the wine and the sugar. Stir vigorously until the sugar has completely dissolved. The bargnolino can be bottled immediately. It is, however, best not to start drinking for about 30 days – just enough time for ‘the sugar to eat the alcohol’!

P.S. If you decide to give it a go, I’d advised taking a good pair of gloves as the shrubs are seriously thorny.

P. P.S. Keep the bottle in the freezer and serve ice cold in shot glasses after a meal.


  1. I don't think I will be giving this one a go Mario. Limoncello is my absolute favourite liqueur but I have never made it.

  2. It's so easy Cathy and you'd be amazed how different the home made version tastes. If we ever meet, I'll bring you a few bottles.

  3. I totally believe you when you say that the home made version tastes different. If we were ever to meet I would greatly appreciate the sentiment. Perhaps I should make 2012 a year to be more adventurous in my kitchen :-)