Nocino: Part One
The Italian liqueur nocino tastes like Christmas, and will warm you right down to your toes as surely as a bright blaze in the fireplace. Sipping it will make you want to go sledding, toast marshmallows, and stay up late into the night telling stories with people you love. At least, that’s the effect it had on me the first time I tasted it. It was a cold and snowy December, and I was visiting friends back in the Northeast. They served me a glass of their homemade nocino with a cup of freshly brewed coffee as accompaniment. After the first sip, I demanded the recipe.
You might wonder why, in the heat and humidity of an Iowa summer, I am suddenly preoccupied with a digestif tailor-made for winter’s chill. There are two good reasons. First, nocino is made from green walnuts — or rather, black walnuts which are harvested during the brief 2-3 week period when the nuts are still green and soft and can be easily sliced open with a paring knife. This magical period is happening right now; the nuts for nocino are traditionally harvested on the Feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24th), which, according to legend, imbues the resulting liqueur with increased medicinal properties. Second, the nocino must age for at least six months before the flavor mellows enough to be potable. Some sources recommend aging the liqueur as much as 18 months, but Cathy and Pete’s brew was about six months old when I tasted it, and I see no reason to wait longer for gratification.
Since I have no walnut tree at my disposal in the Heartland, I ordered my green walnuts from Local Harvest, which supports small, family-run farms across the country. The walnuts I ordered came from Clary Ridge Ranch in California, and arrived by Priority Mail with a freezer pack and walnut tree leaves.
I researched several nocino recipes online, some of which call for vodka in varying proofs (100 proof seems most popular) and some of which call for Everclear. Everclear is grain alcohol with a proof of 190 in its pure form, and 151 proof in some states which ban the higher proof. I decided to use Everclear, since I already had a large amount of it on hand.* The recipes I have read vary not only in proof, but also in amount of sugar added, so I did some basic math and came up with proportions that seem like a good compromise. Frustratingly, I will have to wait at least six months to find out whether or not I have done my 8th grade algebra teacher proud.
The process so far:
- Quarter 33 green walnuts with a sharp paring knife. (Traditional nocino recipes mysteriously recommend using an odd number of nuts.) The clear juice that oozes out will stain everything it touches black, so wear gloves, use a plastic cutting board, and wash everything down promptly.
- Place the quartered walnuts into a large, wide-mouthed glass jar. Use glass, because the Everclear is a strong enough solvent to leach nasty chemicals out of some types of plastic.
- Pour 2 cups granulated cane sugar over the walnuts, and seal the jar lid tightly.
- Shake the contents of the jar thoroughly and leave in the sun for 1-2 days, shaking occasionally. The walnuts will release a great deal of golden liquid during this time.
- Add 1 L of Everclear 151 to the jar.
- Add spices: 2 cinnamon sticks, 5 cloves, half a vanilla bean, and the zest of 1 lemon or small orange.
- Reseal the jar and store in a partially sunny location. Let sit for 60 days, shaking daily.
That’s Nocino: Part One. I’ll get back to you with Nocino: Part Two in about 60 days.
*A few months ago, Iowa considered banning the sale of Everclear 151 as well, and since I use this potent ingredient to make traditional Napolitan limoncello each summer, I decided to stock up just in case.