Nocino

Recently I hosted several Sacramento area food bloggers over for a potluck. Late in the afternoon, after most of the guests had left and the die hards remained, I pulled out some nocino, a spicy, sweet, slightly bitter walnut liqueur that I made a couple years ago to share with the group. The recipe comes from our favorite Parisian man-about-town David Lebovitz, from his terrific book, Room For Dessert. David recommends using nocino to flavor custards, or to pour over vanilla ice cream. We had ours straight. To any other group of my friends, tasting homemade nocino would be a novelty at best. To this group, it was an inspiration. A few friends looked around the yard and noticed that our walnut trees had plenty of perfectly young green walnuts on them. A few minutes later, one group was off to the store to buy a gallon of vodka. The other group was on ladders picking the young walnuts within reach. In short order, our kitchen was filled with cooks, chopping walnuts, parsing out sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and other ingredients to different glass canning jars. A nocino party! One of the guests even noticed churro remnants on the kitchen ceiling (that’s another story) and knocked them down.

Regarding nocino. It’s an Italian liqueur made with unripe walnuts, still soft in their green husks. The time to make nocino is in late May, early June, when the shells have still not yet hardened. I’ve never seen green walnuts at any market, easier to find a friend with a walnut tree. You can also make green walnut pickles with the nuts, and even vin de noix or walnut wine.

The juice from the walnuts will permanently stain anything it touches, so you might want to wear gloves while cutting them. Wash down the cutting board as soon as you are done cutting the walnuts.

Ingredients

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  • 30 green English walnuts (do not use American black walnuts), early enough in the season so that they are easily cut with a knife
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 1-inch piece of vanilla bean
  • Zest of one lemon, cut into strips using a vegetable peeler
  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 liter vodka

Other recipes I've found use orange peel instead of lemon, use spices such as mace, or include grappa. The next time I make nocino I may try the orange peel and even add a little star anise.

Method

1 Rinse and pat dry the walnuts. Cut them into quarters with a sharp chef's knife or cleaver. Be careful as you are cutting them; if you've waited too late in the season to pick them, their shells may have begun to harden and cutting through them may be a little dicey. Watch your fingers.

2 Put walnuts, spices, zest, sugar, and vodka into a large glass container. The vodka should cover the walnuts. Cover and shake to mix well. Store for 6 weeks, shaking daily. As the days go by you will notice that the color of the nocino gets darker and darker.

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3 When you are ready to bottle, remove the walnuts and solids with a slotted metal spoon. (Again be careful where you do this as the walnuts and the nocino will stain.) Strain the liquid through several layers of cheesecloth into glass bottles. (I've seen recipes that call for straining the liquid through coffee filters which I think would work fine too.) Cork tightly. According to David, nocino will last for several years if stored in a cool, dry place. The nocino will initially be rather bitter, but it will mellow over time. It's best at least a year after it was first bottled.

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