Sunday, June 28, 2015

Nocino: Italian Green Walnut Liqueur

One year. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. That's how long it takes till you know if you've succeeded or failed miserably. If you've created something worth doing again or if maybe it needs a little tweaking next time.

Too strong? Too sweet? Too bitter? Still takes about a year to really know.

Longer than a pregnancy, with no ultrasounds, blood tests or even a heartbeat to listen to. Sure you can taste it as you go along, which can give you a vague idea of its eventual character, but really, as with that pregnancy, you'll just have to wait and see how it turns out. In this case, if the combination of raw green walnuts, grain alcohol and simple syrup makes itself into something worth pouring for friends after a long, happy dinner.

My first batch, made last year from walnuts donated from the prodigious production of my neighbor Jim Dixon's tree, got off to a promising start on our back patio, over a period of several months turning from bright green to yellow to the color of your car's oil when it needs changing. Once the solids have been strained off and the simple syrup is added, it's like tasting a soup before the ingredients have had a chance to cook together. Each ingredient was distinct and identifiable: lots of astringent alcohol, the vegetal taste of the walnuts, then the sweetness of the sugar.

After a year, though, the flavors began to blend into a cohesive profile. At this point, last year's batch has subtle notes of chocolate and coffee, as well as vanilla and a hint of citrus. I know Jim has nocinos dating back several years, each remarkably unique and getting more complex as the years go by.

This year I got more green walnuts from Jim, adding in some I picked—with permission—from another neighbor's tree, then threw in a few leaves per Mr. Dixon's method (below). Back out onto the patio they went to sit through the summer and fall until November when I'll decant them, add the sugar and wait to find out what kind of character I'll meet next year.

Jim Dixon's Nocino

1 gallon-size glass jar*
30-40 green walnuts
1 gallon ‎180 proof grain alcohol, known as Everclear (in Oregon you can also get a brand called Clear Spring at select OLCC stores)
Walnut leaves, optional
Simple syrup (3 parts sugar to 4 parts water mixture)

Halve walnuts and fill jar, adding a few leaves at the end if desired. Fill jar with alcohol and secure lid. Place outdoors. Within a few days it will look like used motor oil. Wait at least two months—I tend to wait four to six months—then strain out nuts and leaves. Next, Jim says, "I'd recommend diluting the walnut-flavored alcohol with an equal amount of syrup, which gives you 90 proof nocino, then trying it to see if you like it 'hot.' If not, you can add more plain water and/or syrup to dilute it down. Around 80 proof (40% alcohol) is what I like, which is 2 parts alcohol to 3 parts syrup/water." Great as is as a digestif or over ice cream for dessert.

* I double this recipe, resulting in a little less than two gallons of finished liqueur.

Read my post on picking walnuts with Jim and Chef Cathy Whims of Nostrana, titled "Yes to Nocino!", and the story of my first attempt last year, "Waiting's the Hard Part."


Laura said...

we're making this with butternut aka white walnuts that we discovered growing on our plot... will it work? I don't see why not.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Sounds like it would be worth a try, Laura! Keep me posted on results.

Unknown said...

How did the butternut nocino turn out? My regular black walnut tree is having a bad year and I'd like to use butternuts but not sure if they are poisonous?

Kathleen Bauer said...

I don’t know anything about butternuts and I have no way to contact the commenter. I did find this article that mentions butternuts. So it doesn’t look like they’re toxic. However, whenever you're foraging in public places, make sure that the area has not been sprayed with pesticides, which can get onto the trees through drift or be absorbed by the roots.

Another place to check for helpful foraging information and recipes is my friend Hank Shaw’s website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.

Good luck, and keep me posted if you decide to make some!