Yes, it is Latin – rata fiat. I won’t bore you with past participles, passive subjunctives and other grammatical terms, but simply indicate that it means “Let it be approved”. It’s where our English word ratify comes from.
Quite possibly, it is also the origin of the word ratafia, a sweet liqueur, made with macerated fruit or nuts. A common story on the origin of the drink’s name (repeated in Wikipedia and any number of websites) begins in the Middle Ages, around the time the Black Death was marching across Europe. The community of Andorno in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy was apparently saved from the plague by the miraculous properties of this strong, sweet drink. Thus, the drink was proclaimed rata fiat, or ratafia in their local dialect. I’ll leave it to your imagination to fill in the gaps; gallons of sweet liqueur, inebriated villagers and a horrific pandemic are colorful and fanciful story elements. Like many miracle tales, it is highly improbable and certainly unverifiable, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that there may be a small kernel of truth amongst the chaff. Stranger things have happened.
However, the online etymology dictionary tells a more sober(!) story – dry as dust, but probably more accurate. The dictionary states that ratafia is a word of unknown derivation, questionably of French origin, applied to a sweet, strong drink popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Alan Davidson in his authoritative work, The Oxford Companion to Food, supports this version, although he indicates that the name ratafia might have been derived from the custom of toasting the ratification of a treaty, the conclusion of a marriage ceremony, or some such formal event with a sweet liqueur, when the act was proclaimed rata fiat.
Whatever the origin, I wanted to make use of the season’s clementines by making my own ratafia. I had used up the last of my home made orange liqueur in my shortbread biscuits (see my post Short Bread) just before Christmas and needed to replenish my stock. What could be better than sweet clementines?
Some definitions of ratafia specify that brandy is an essential element, others indicate it must contain bitter almonds or kernels of fruit such as apricots, and even others say it must be made with a citrus fruit. My ratafia qualifies for two of these three criteria. The citrus is there with the clementines and I’ve added some brandy. The base, however, is a clear, high proof, near flavorless alcohol. I used a Greek tsikoudia (similar to Italian grappa) that had little or no flavor, but vodka is a good substitute and more readily available.
- 3 cups (750 ml) vodka
- 1 cup (250 ml) brandy
- 5 clementines
- 2 one-inch segments of vanilla bean
- 1 cup sugar
Pour your vodka in a large (1-1/2 liter) jar with a non-reactive lid, such as a canning jar. Juice the clementines and set the juice aside. With a spoon, scrape out the remaining pulp and as much of the white pith as possible from the clementine halves. Rip the rinds into small pieces and place in the jar with the vodka. Score the vanilla beans and add this and the brandy to the jar with the vodka and clementine rinds.
In a saucepan, place the sugar and the clementine juice. On medium high heat, stir until the sugar dissolves and let it boil for a minute or two to produce a light syrup. Strain the syrup and add it to the jar with the alcohol and rinds.
Seal and put in a cool dark place. The mixture will be cloudy, getting clearer as sediment forms on the bottom. Let the clementines soak for 3 to 4 weeks. Decant, discarding solids (see Note below) and filter through cheesecloth or a coffee filter to remove the sediment. Bottle and store. It can be drunk at this time, but mellows with age. It will be perfect for the following Christmas season.
Note: Since vanilla beans are expensive, I tend to save these from the discarded rinds, run them under cold water, and leave them to dry on a paper towel. Once dry, they can be re-purposed to make vanilla sugar. Place the dried vanilla pods in a jar with caster sugar. Shake and let it sit for at least a week while the sugar absorbs the vanilla flavor.