Nocino is an Italian liqueur made with unripe walnuts that are still soft in their green husks. It's spicy, sweet, and slightly bitter, and delicious served drizzled over vanilla ice cream, or served on its own as an aperitif.
Finding Green Walnuts
To make nocino, the first thing you will need to do is source some green walnuts! I've never seen green walnuts at any market. It may be easier to find a friend with a walnut tree.
The best time to make nocino is in late May or early June, when the shells have still not yet hardened inside the husks. If you wait too long, the walnuts are too hard to easily cut through and you need to quarter them to make nocino.
Protect Your Hands and Cutting Board From Walnut Stains
Once you have your green walnuts, you'll want to take care with them as you work with them for this (or any) recipe. Walnuts STAIN like a sharpie permanent marker.
You'll cut into them and they'll look pretty and white inside, but green walnuts secrete a juice that will stain anything it touches dark brown—your fingers, your cutting board, your clothing.
So, wear gloves when you cut into the walnuts and handle the cut pieces. Work on a cutting board that you don't care if it stains. Wear an old t-shirt or clothes or an apron you don't care about if it gets stained.
Spices to Use for Nocino
David uses cinnamon, cloves, lemon zest, and vanilla bean as spices for his nocino. I've also seen orange zest used instead of lemon. I may try adding star anise as well.
Homemade Nocino Walnut Liqueur
The juice from the walnuts will permanently stain anything it touches, so I recommend that you wear gloves while cutting them. Wash down the cutting board as soon as you are done cutting the walnuts.
Some people are very sensitive to native black walnuts, so if you use black walnuts instead of English walnuts, be aware of any such allergies if serving to guests.
Recipe published with permission from David Lebovitz's fabulous Room For Dessert. (Great book!)
- 30 green English 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.
Prepare the green walnuts:
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.
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.
Bottle the nocino:
When you are ready to bottle, remove the walnuts and solids with a slotted metal spoon. (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.