We all celebrate summer in our own fashion, whether it’s firing up the barbecue with friends, or picnicking in the park or sprawling out on a blanket at the beach. This is the time of year to worship the sun and be outside. Humans have been honoring the sun since the beginning of time and scientists continue to observe it with great interest today. Almost every agricultural society throughout history has a different way of honoring the longest day of the year, or the solstice, when the sun is at its highest. In Hinduism they celebrate Uttarayana through observation, and the practice of Yoga. Ancient Egyptians aligned the Great Pyramids so that the sun, when viewed from the Sphinx, sets precisely between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice. It is afterall, the ultimate source of life on earth as we know it and without it, nothing would survive.
Litha comes from celtic-pagan traditions. It is one of eight holidays celebrated by the Celts, and they typically coincide with the changes of the seasons and harvests. Litha is the exact counterpart to Yule, a more well known winter solstice celebration, often associated with Christmas. Farmers would pray to the pagan gods and goddesses for blessings on their crops and livestock. Like most Midsummer traditions large bonfires and fire rituals are very common and are used for energizing and harnessing the power of the sun. As well as providing magical aid to the sun, fires were also used to drive out evil and to bring fertility and prosperity to men, crops and herds. Specific shrubs lit on fire were carried around livestock to prevent disease and misfortune. People would dance around the bonfires or leap through the flames as a purifying or strengthening rite. The Celts would light balefires all over their lands from sunset the night before Midsummer until sunset the next day. Around these flames the festivities would take place. Because the ancient Celts did not have an accurate astronomical calendar they would typically estimate the few days it would take place over and celebrate over those several days feasting and holding fire rituals.
Of course good food and drink is always a central part of any decent celebration and of my favorite summer seasonal ingredients happens to have a long history with Midsummer celebration and traditions. Nocino, a black walnut liqueur, is made from harvesting the green walnuts before they ripen. According to some sources regarding harvesting rites, only barefoot-female virgins dressed in white, are supposed to climb the walnut tree on the night of the midsummer. The maidens must be sure to gather an uneven number of walnuts while taking care not to touch the fruit with any material other than wood. The walnuts are then left out overnight to absorb the heightened cosmic powers till the next day when the dewy walnuts are pounded with aromatic spices and covered in alcohol for at least 40 days. It is then strained out and sugar and water are added making a delicious sweet, bitter Nocino. Some traditions, however, call for the infusion to steep until another important date in the pagan calendar, the eve of Samhain, or the 31st of October.
Here is an inspired cocktail to celebrate the season right, designed with local ingredients in mind. I picked out some really nice ripe plums from the West Side market and I used one of my favorite Nocinos from Watershed Distillery in Columbus Ohio. Definitely a good cocktail to sit and sip around the campfire with a big a** hunk of smoked meat. It’s got all the dark aromatics and boozy nip you look for in a classic cocktail with the round sweetness of the plum reduction and just the right balance of bitters to cut the sweetness and enhance the Apple Brandy. This Litha, try black walnuts and stone fruit in your seasonal cooking and at home bartending!
3 ounces Watershed Apple Brandy
½ ounce Watershed Nocino
¼ ounce plum reduction
2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
Simply pour the ingredients over some regular ice cubes in a rocks glass. Be careful not to over dilute. *SUMMER TIP! Instead of using ice cubes simply substitute for some frozen fruit and add a very small dash of water (approximately ¼ ounce) to your cocktail. This will help prevent over dilution and keep it cold while slowly infusing your cocktail with flavor as you drink.
Muddle at least four very ripe plums, pit removed, in 1 cup of turbinado or raw cane sugar until the sugar is wet with plum juice ( You don’t have to use plums, any fruit with enough juices are excellent for this recipe, I have made this recipe with strawberry, watermelon and even white grapes)
Add ½ cup of distilled or filtered water and put over medium low heat. ( Feel free to add any additional spices or herbs you would like at this time, basil, sage and rosemary are excellent examples for these types of recipes.)
Stir often until sugar is completely dissolved, turn heat down very low and let it have little teeny tiny heat simmer bubbles for 10 min.
Remove from heat and let cool before storing in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Click the image to join in on our Midsummer Celebration this year!