Grandmother Lluisa Juanola darts off the farmyard track, picks a flower hidden in the long grass and adds it triumphantly to her basket. Further downhill, Marta Compte does battle with the branches of a small tree as she tries to retrieve some pine cones hanging tantalisingly just above her head.
The women are taking part in an annual ritual—gathering plants to make the traditional Catalan liqueur called ratafia. A heady concoction of around 50 aromatic herbs, flowers, fruits and spices, this sweet, caramel-coloured drink is said to have medicinal properties.
While many Spanish liqueurs such as patxaran/pacharán, the sloe-flavoured liqueur from Navarra, and orujo, the transparent spirit popular in Galicia, Castilla-León and Cantabria, have become supermarket staples, ratafia remains very much a local product. And although small distilleries, such as Cal Russet in Olot and Distribucions Portet outside of Lleida, produce ratafia commercially, the practice of making it at home is still widespread.
Traditionally, the herbs are gathered on the eve of the midsummer festival of Sant Joan when they are said to be imbued with magical qualities. Each family has its own recipe—a closely-guarded secret that is passed down through the generations—and their own way of preparing the liqueur. For this reason it is said there are as many different types of ratafia as there are people who make it.
Lluisa, who was taught what she knows by her mother, is now passing on her knowledge of herbs to her daughter Anna Güell and four-year-old granddaughter Julia. For the past four or five years, they have been joined on their annual herb-gathering trips by several of Anna’s colleagues, all of whom contribute their own ideas on what to add to the brew.
Another ratafia enthusiast, Xavi Amat, from Santa Coloma de Farners, learned how to make the liqueur by listening to the advice of “la gente mayor” as well as from taking part in an annual summertime workshop held in his hometown. “Like all families and people who make ratafia, we have a secret recipe,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I can only give you some details.”
While Amat gathers herbs that he finds near his house throughout the year and buys others from herb shops, Lluisa’s friends enjoy the social aspect of their plant-gathering excursions in the run-up to Sant Joan.
One of the group, Àngels Camós, doesn’t even plan to make ratafia this year. “I still have ratafia left from last year,” she explained. “I just want to learn about the plants.”
Setting off from Lluisa Juanola’s rustic farmhouse in the shadow of the Pyrenean foothills, everyone is armed with an array of plastic bags and baskets and a list of some 65 herbs, fruits and flowers. Included are the aromatic herbs rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano, as well as flowers with exotic-sounding names such as horse’s tail and lion’s tooth, various types of ferns, stinging nettles and pine cones.
The most important ingredient for ratafia, though, is unripe walnuts. The tender green nuts, picked before their shells have hardened, form the base of the liqueur. They are steeped in alcohol along with the rest of the herbs and spices for a minimum of 40 days, a sol i serena (in the sun and night air) before being filtered straight into bottles or decanted into wooden containers for a further three months of ageing.
The commercial process is more complex with the herbs and spices added at different stages of the maceration process, and water and sugar used to adjust the alcohol content.
While Juanola’s list gives the quantities of each plant needed to make eight litres of ratafia, it is not an exact science. At the end of the afternoon the group have found about half of the plants listed and added another dozen. Extra ingredients such as coffee beans, lemon and orange peel, cinnamon sticks, freshly ground nutmeg and anise will also be needed as well as the liquorice-flavoured liqueur anisette, in which all the plants are left to soak.
The rest is down to the personal touch of the person making the ratafia. “Every year, even though we all collect the same plants, everyone’s ratafia comes out differently,” Àngels Camós explained.
Xavi Amat said the taste of the liqueur is also determined by the weather. “Every year it is different, even with the same ingredients. The climate has a lot to do with it—if the herbs aren’t well dried, if they have had a lot of sun or too little. In short, climate change also affects ratafia.”
His town, Santa Coloma de Farners, holds an annual ratafia festival during the second weekend in November, where the competition for the title of best home-brewed liqueur is fierce.
He has entered many times with his mother and friends, and although they have not yet won a prize he remains upbeat. “The level is very high. There are people who make ratafia in a masterly way. My prize is the satisfaction of seeing the happiness of my friends when they try the ratafia after a winter dinner.”
Full of the tannins found in green walnuts, ratafia was traditionally drunk after a meal to aid digestion. Nowadays, it is also drunk with, or in, coffee, ‘on the rocks’ or with crushed ice.
Typically in Catalunya, where such a high regard is placed on food, ratafia has also found its way into the kitchen and is used in everything from starters and main courses to desserts. “It goes very well with roast meats where it contributes a multitude of flavours thanks to the 25 distinct plants it is made from,” said Àngel Portet, director of Distribucions Portet, which makes Ratafia dels Raiers.
“In baking it is used to make cakes, crème caramels or chocolates filled or flavoured with ratafia. It also goes very well in fruit salads or for soaking fruits like orange.”
The Garrotxa town of Besalú holds its annual ratafia festival on the first Sunday of December where, along with traditional music and dancing, local restaurateurs serve dishes made with the liqueur.
“We use ratafia as a liqueur in a Besalú dessert called carquinyolis, which is a sponge with hazelnuts, and also with doughnuts at Lent,” said Carme Ventura, spokeswoman for the town’s Cal Parent restaurant.
“We also make a sauce which we serve with foie, but the most common way is to use it in desserts such as mousse, ice-cream or with some type of sponge soaked in ratafia.”
Even the celebrated Catalan chef Ferran Adrià is working on a dish incorporating ratafia with walnuts and Italian cheese for his world-famous El Bulli restaurant near Roses.
Meanwhile Àngels Camós and her husband Pep Gratacos have their own ratafia project to attend to—getting through last year’s supply of her home-made brew.
• The first recorded example of ratafia dates back to 1842 from a recipe found in the Catalan area of La Selva.
• Several companies produce ratafia commercially in Catalunya. The distillery Cal Russet, in Olot, produces 170,000 bottles of Ratafia Russet a year, most of which is sold in Catalunya. People wishing to visit the distillery should email: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Distribucions Portet, in La Pobla de Segur, Lleida, produces around 25,000 bottles of its Dels Raiers ratafia annually. Call ahead to request a half-hour tour of the distillery, followed by a tasting on 973 68 01 32 or 637 423 104, or by sending an email to email@example.com
• For more information about the ratafia festivals in Besalú and Santa Coloma de Farners contact:
Besalú Tourist Office, tel. 972 59 12 40
Santa Coloma de Farners Town Hall, tel. 972 84 08 08
First published in November 2007