Today, June 24th, is the day that Florence celebrates its patron Saint, San Giovanni (a.k.a. John the Baptist), and traditionally it’s also the day when unripe green walnuts are gathered for making nocino, a complex, nutty, and slightly bitter dark brown liqueur. It’s usually served as an after-dinner digestivo, but can also be used to “correct” a shot of espresso, poured over gelato, mixed into cocktails, or used in place of vanilla extract in baking (biscotti would be a a good application for that). Green walnuts are only available for a brief span of time every June and last year I missed the window of opportunity, but this year I managed to get some before it was too late. I ordered 5 pounds of green walnuts (about 40 walnuts) from Haag Farms in California; they were delivered to my doorstep just in time (I’m leaving soon for a trip to London). Although I’ve spent some time on walnut farms, I’d never really examined a green walnut up close. I sliced one in half to see what it was all about. The fetal walnut looked like nothing so much as a tiny, translucent brain. It had the shape and form of a walnut but was clear and jelly-like. Weird! Fascinating!
Cutting through these suckers was not easy, even with a sharp chef’s knife and even though the immature shells lining the inside of the green husks were still quite thin. It took some muscle to cut them. (Also note: If you care at all about your manicure, wear gloves for this part. The walnut juice will stain your fingers, nails, and cutting board an icky yellow that later turns dark brown.) Once I had 25 of them quartered, I placed them in a large glass jar with 1 quart (4 cups) of 190-proof Everclear. What’s that you say? Everclear is illegal in Massachusetts? Yes, I’m aware of that. Let’s just say I had it smuggled in from a less puritanical state where people have the freedom to infuse their own liqueurs. I also added the zest of one lemon, a few cloves, a stick of cinnamon, some coffee beans, and half of a nutmeg. Recipes vary wildly on the spices — some add juniper berries, vanilla beans, or orange zest. I decided to be very sparing with them, since a good nocino doesn’t taste strongly of any individual spice; the hard-to-describe green walnut flavor should predominate: nutty, slightly bitter, a touch oaky and medicinal, and a bit vanilla-y and sweet as well.
Once everything was in the jar, I closed the lid tightly and gave it all a good shake. Most recipes for nocino instruct you to leave it in a bright, sunny spot to macerate, but that seems counter to all logic about infusing liquor. Light can degrade and destroy flavor/aroma compounds, so I chose to store my big moonshine jar in a cool, dark cupboard, just like I do when I make limoncello.
Just a few hours later, a peek into the jar revealed that the walnuts had already begun to oxidize and turn black (particularly any that were sticking out above the water line) and the liquid had turned a dark, evil-looking, greenish-black. Yikes. Just what exactly was I brewing up, here? The last nocino that I had was an ersatz commercial version, which had been tinted brown with caramel coloring. I assume that the real deal is supposed to be this scary color.
And now…the wait begins. Most people advise letting it sit for about 40 days before adding simple syrup, then letting it sit for at least another month before straining out the solids. At that point it is, in theory, ready to drink, but common wisdom–and the “Order of Modinese Nocino“–dictate that to really get something special, you need to then let it age and mellow for at least a year (better yet, two). I’m not sure I have that kind of patience, but we’ll see what happens. As it is, it’s torturous to have to wait two months to taste it. This will be a long-term project, obviously, and I’ll post follow-ups as it progresses. If you want to try your hand at nocino as well, get your orders in quick — the magic time for green walnut gathering is just about over (if not over already).
The formula that I used is a mixture of one from my friend Judy, one that Haag Farms sent along with the shipment of green walnuts, and my own inspiration (nutmeg just seemed to go well with walnut).
25 green walnuts, quartered
1 quart (4 cups) Everclear
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 nutmeg (grated on all sides)
10 coffee beans (I used Blue Bottle Finca El Majahual)
Simple syrup: 3 cups sugar dissolved in 4 cups water
- Wash walnuts and quarter lengthwise.
- Place walnut quarters in large glass jar with Everclear and spices. Seal tightly and shake well.
- Let sit in a cool, dark place for 30-40 days.
- Add simple syrup and shake well. Return jar to a cool, dark place and let sit 30-60 days.
- Strain out solids. Store nocino in tightly sealed glass bottles or jars. It can be used immediately, or aged for an additional 1-2 years for the best and most complex flavor. The bitterness lessens with time.