Nocino is a dark-brown, aromatic liqueur that seems to have originated in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It’s made from walnuts. It’s bittersweet and slightly spicy. It’s a great digestif; it’s a wicked addition to a Manhattan; it’s delicious poured over vanilla ice cream affogato-style. And it’s really fun to make.
If you are in an area where walnuts grow (black walnut is the preferred variety, and if you have one growing in your neighborhood this is an excellent way to make use of them, but English walnuts work too) now is the moment to strike. Folklore has it that the walnuts are to be harvested on June 23rd (Midsummer’s Eve) and 24th, the feast day of St John the Baptist (I’m not sure why, and depending where you live you might want to do it earlier or later). You can also find them online and sometimes in stores and farmer’s markets. At this time of year they are still small and green, and the hard shell has not yet formed inside the hull.
If you have never handled a green walnut, be advised that they stain like crazy and you will probably want to wear gloves. The hulls were historically used to dye fabric a deep ochre-brown – and it’s really hard to get off of your hands.
Gather about 30 of these little guys (about two pounds) and cut them into halves or quarters. Put them in a large mason jar. Recipes vary widely – some use only the nuts, while others suggest the addition of orange or lemon zest, a vanilla bean, stick cinnamon, cloves or a combination (I vote yes on the vanilla, cinnamon and a little citrus zest personally). Other more adventurous types add fir tips, bay leaves, dark-roast coffee beans, nutmeg. Some recipes add sugar right at the beginning (from one to three cups) and others add a simple syrup when they strain the liquid off of the walnuts later.
Whatever additives you are using, stick ‘em in the jar with the walnuts, cover the whole thing with good-quality vodka (80 proof is about right) and seal the jar. Give it a shake, leave it to stew (many recipes say to keep it in a sunny spot). It’ll turn a kind of swampy green and then rich espresso-brown.
Leave it alone. Continue leaving it alone. Or agitate it a little every 10 days or so. You’re going to open this jar after about 40 days. At that point, you strain the liquid (a chinois, a jelly bag or even a coffee filter is fine) into scalded/sterilized bottles. Seal and let age for a few months, up to two years. It will keep indefinitely. Except that you will drink it before “indefinitely” comes around.
Whether the solstice (or the energy of John the Baptist) have a mystical influence on the flavor I am not prepared to say, but the fact that old recipes call out the date as an important element of the recipe indicates that early brewers of this liqueur probably did. But even if the midsummer’s eve thing was just to help you remember that that’s when the walnuts are at the right stage for this, it’s still fun to think of it as a solstice ritual. And seriously, if you’re one of the many people who get pelted with black walnuts that are too tiny and rock hard to be bothered with – this is a great thing to do with them. Happy summer!
If you don’t want to make your own Nocino, don’t fret; you can buy it off the shelf. Check out the Nocino by Watershed Distillery.