The Lure of the Liqueur

June 29, 2013

With our backyard mandarin tree bursting with winter fruit, the Mandarin Queen needed to break away from the annual marmalade making. 

Enter the gaudy tea towel I’d bought from a local Italian deli a few months ago. The 100% cotton ‘Liquori d’Italia’ purchase was an encyclopedia of Italian liqueurs and winding my way down the boot, I found something enticing. Souvenir Italian teatowel with liqueur map

Mandarinetto is a Sicilian mandarin-based liqueur that uses the same recipe as Limoncello: fruit peel, vodka and sugar syrup. I can feel it doing me good already.

Italians love their liqueurs as either aperitifs or digestifs and have been making them since they were prepared by monks as herbal medicines centuries ago. Wind the clock forward to the 1960s and my mother (who was definitely not a monk but liked her cordials with a bit of kick) went through a homemade liqueur phase. Armed with pure alcohol, sugar and synthetic essences, she worked her way through Maraschino, Amaretto, Sambuca and something bright green as post-dinner party treats. But it’s the Strega that stands out.

Strega bottle with its namesake witch

Strega means “witch” in Italian and was so named in 1860 for the legends of witchcraft in its city of origin – Benevento, northeast of Naples. When I later studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth at school, nothing could wipe from my mind the vision of the three witches, the cauldron and the chant “Double, double, toil and trouble”. Commercially bought Liquore Strega which is made from 70 herbs and spices still boasts a witch on the label.

The liqueur has also been quoted in literature (A Farewell to Arms) and has a role in a few films including Kitty Foyle (1940) where Ginger Rogers (in one of her more interesting roles) is impressed with her beau’s smooth line: “If two people drink it [Strega] together, they’ll never drink it apart”.

For Mandarinetto, the line would be something like: “if you make this liqueur from home-grown fruit you will become intimate with citrus stinkbugs”. 

Speaking of bugs, I’ve always been fascinated by the liqueur ‘Alchermes’, said to contain a small parasitic insect that contributes to its scarlet colour.

I belong to a bi-monthly food club and the president occasionally brings along a bottle of surprising liqueur for us to try. My Mandarinetto will require a four week steeping period, so I’ll report back after I’ve tested it on club members.

Mandarinetto liqueur recipe from ‘Love from Italy’ blog

Related post: Maraschino liqueur cherries

Kitty Foyle Strega scene




  1. I love Strega. The bright yellow liquer is certainly unique and as you say, steeped in history. Your concept of mandarinetto is brilliant, we make limoncello periodically with grappa and I have heard you can do it with oranges. I look forward to hearing your report in four weeks, what an intriguing meeting club you belong to!

    • Strega’s great – and so medicinal! Will definitely report back in about four weeks’ time when the Mandarinetto will be unveiled.

  2. Love the tea towel, Reminds me of the ones I have with italian calendars printed on them. Mandarinetto?! Ma dai! Sounds amazing

    • The mandarin peel is steeping in vodka right now. In about three weeks’ time my 10 dinner guests will either give the Mandarinetto a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Fingers crossed.

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